Two minutes to Food Dev. Two minutes, people! Grab your name tag, your tasting sheet, a hair cover, and meet me at the kitchen lab. –Christopher (Chris) Anderson, Clover’s VP of Food Operations, shouted from across the room as he kicked-off Clover’s weekly Food Development meeting.
The fifteen participants –which included Clover’s CEO, the VP of Ops, a few employees, a handful of customers, and me— promptly followed Chris’ indications. We gathered around a steel table with samples of three different types of corn muffin ready to be evaluated.
As I tasted the new recipes and shared my thoughts with the group, I reflected on Clover’s approach to product innovation. Constant recipe tweaks fueled by feedback was not a usual practice for fast food restaurants. Most chains operated on consistency, but Clover changed up to 80% of its menu over the course of a month. How could this radically different approach to its operations lead to a successful business?
Since its origin, Clover has differentiated itself from traditional players in the fast-food category by including feedback from customers, employees, and suppliers in every step of the food development process. This culture of experimentation can be attributed to Ayr Muir, the founder and CEO of Clover Food Labs.
With a BS in Material Science from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School, Ayr hoped to go into the field of wind energy as he cared deeply about the effects of climate change. However, after reading a report on meat consumption and its effects on the environment, Ayr decided to go into the food service industry instead. If he was able to use a restaurant as a vehicle to reduce meat consumption, he could have a bigger impact on climate change than transportation and energy. Clover’s ambitious goal is to “take someone who loves meat – and probably a lot of them don’t think they like vegetables– and we’re trying to get that person to make their own decision to change their meals [and] change their habits.”
Changing the eating habits of millions of people is no small endeavor. However, Ayr believes that Clover is uniquely positioned to achieve this because they incorporate experimentation and data collection into every facet of the company. Ayr argues that having a culture of experimentation and using open innovation methods comprises much of Clover’s competitive advantage. This will lead them to “defy all the laws of gravity for [his] industry”.
The Product Development Cycle
- Critique at Food Dev Meeting | Food Dev meetings happen every Tuesday at 3PM at the Clover Hub in Inman Square. As described in their open invitation on their website, these meetings are “open to the public. You can listen and taste. Or you can bring a sample of something you think we should try.” The group often tastes about five recipes –a couple introduced by Clover’s VP of Food Dev, a few brought by Clover employees, and one item from a customer who has submitted a Champion Form. The goal is to try new dishes that could be added to the menu or make tweaks to existing items on the Clover menu. No item has been nor will be added to the Clover menu without first going through critique at Food Dev.
- Testing (soft launch) at one Clover location | If a recipe gets unanimous good feedback at Food Dev meeting, Ayr approves for the item to be tested at one location for a week. In this week, Clover employees hand samples of the new item and get informal feedback from costumers. If the menu item seems to be well received, it is labeled as Experimental Item and rolled out to all locations.
- Experimental Launch in all locations | At any point in time, Clover will have 5-7 experimental items on its menu. These items have a special label next on the menu (see picture below). The Clover team gathers qualitative and quantitative data to determine if they should make the menu item permanent. The methods used are as informal as talking to a customer who is trying the item for the first time and noting down the answers on a shared form, or as formal as keeping track of the number of sales over all locations.
- Continuous testing and iteration | Testing never ends. Ayr would argue that “Clover is a giant R&D project.” The Clover team is constantly looking for ways to improve their menu via monthly surveys and “eavesdropping” on Twitter. Twitter feedback actually lead to a change on the type of vinegar used on Clover’s most popular item: the Chickpea Fritter Sandwich. This change was the 34th change to this item.
In his book, The Third Wave, futurist Alvin Toffler argues that pure consumers are a phenomenon of the Industrial Age and that they will be replaced by prosumers, consumers who take part in the production process and coproduce many of their own goods and services. Clover Food Lab appears to be the epitome of the type of company Toffler envisioned. However, after learning about Open Innovation, reading all about Clover’s history, and attending a weekly Food Dev meeting, a few details still make me question how true the previous statement truly is.
- Food Dev meetings –a tool for innovation or a tool for deep costumer loyalty? Even though the meeting is open to the public and employees, when I attended the meeting, I really got the sense that it might be more of a “show”. All the ultimate decisions were made by Ayr and Chris. They didn’t really ask much of what we thought.
- Clovers method for Open Innovation—does it scale? While up until now Clover has mostly been based in Massachusetts, the company has clear plans for national expansion. When this happens, it will be impossible for Ayr to attend every single Food Dev meeting or keep close track of operations at each store. Will the current process of development fall apart then?
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 Clover Website: https://www.cloverfoodlab.com/2014/08/15/join-us-food-dev/