“We rely a lot on technology… It’s no exaggeration that I literally could not make the food we’re making ten years ago… (It drives) our ability to move as quickly as we do and source the way we do.” – Ayr Muir, Founder and CEO of Clover Food Lab
Customer demand for healthier, fast options has skyrocketed in the past two decades. So, why have many restaurant chains hesitated to move toward healthier menu options? Research has shown that executives most frequently cited the following obstacles: Spoilage and short shelf life of fruit and vegetables, inconsistent supply, and additional storage requirements. 
These are particularly challenging barriers to overcome in the low-margin business of fast food. Yet, Clover Food Lab has harnessed digital innovation to create an operating model that overcomes these barriers to deliver locally-sourced, vegetarian fast food. Clover’s commitment to customers centers around fresh food, a seasonal menu that changes daily, local sourcing, and an efficient experience.  In fact, the company uses no processed, prepared, or frozen products, with the exception of ketchup and mayonnaise. This is radically different than other players in the fast casual markets, even Chipotle and Panera.
Building a Digitally-Connected Operating Model:
Founded in 2008 by HBS graduate, Ayr Muir, Clover now encompasses 11 restaurants and food trucks and 300 employees. What has enabled Clover to thrive in the local fast food space is its use of technology:
- Real-time Menu: Every Clover brick-and-mortar uses high-definition flat-screen monitors to display real-time versions of its menus, which are connected to managers’ iPad devices, via a cloud-based operating system. This enables changes to the menu at any given time. The menu is then connected to Clover’s inventory management system. Once an ingredient runs out, the products dependent on that ingredient are automatically removed from the menu and the ordering interface. This allows Clover to seamlessly adapt to the challenge of inconsistent supply.
- Customization of Mobile Ordering System: Historically, running a fast food operation required investing $60,000+ in inflexible point-of-sale (POS) register systems. Because of Clover’s need for a system that could adapt with its frequently changing menu, Muir with a local developer on a mobile app that could accommodate daily menu changes. This customized POS system works on both iPhones and Androids, enabling flexibility across employees. Because the ability to serve customers is not limited by fixed infrastructure (e.g., cash registers), Clover can flex its ordering staff in accordance with customer demand fluctuations, delivering on its promise of efficient service.
- Delivering Food Fast: Clover employees are “obsessed with speed and constantly time themselves”, with an average service time of around 3.5 minutes. The company heavily relies on connected devices to achieve this quick speed: Once a customer orders, the order gets sent to the kitchen via Wufoo – a form-building app. From there, food preparers reviews orders via an iPad. Because Clover can track the throughput time of each menu item, it is able to provide a real-time update to customers. Additionally, managers can track the cycle times of steps in the process, identifying bottlenecks and adapting operations.
- Tight Feedback Loops: Clover crowdsources product feedback and new recipe ideas via its blog, active management of its social media handles, and monthly customer surveys. Clover also uses its custom POS system to track customer behavior – the system explicitly prompts the order-taker to ask if you’ve tried a product before. If not, he or she will record this information, and the data will be used to analyze the success of new items, based on the frequency of return purchases. The POS system also allows employees to monitor how sales of new items are performing against projections at each location, as well as sales mix by item, category, day, and time.
While Clover has utilized technology to deliver an ever-changing menu and an efficient experience to customers, there are several opportunities to further enhance operations:
- Safety Sensors: In 2013, Clover closed after being linked to a Salmonella outbreak. In response, Clover underwent a health inspection, which found that Clover was keeping multiple ingredients at temperatures that were above the “safe level” for preventing bacteria growth. To prevent this from happening in the future, Clover could invest in sensor technology that is able to monitor the condition and temperature of ingredients upon arrival and during storage. These sensors can be linked to the cloud and coded to alert key stakeholders of any issues that might compromise food safety.
- Remote Asset Monitoring: To maintain its commitment to affordable prices, Clover will need to maximize use and lifetime of its equipment. By using remote equipment sensors, managers could monitor everything from kitchen ovens to HVAC systems to lighting to quickly flag any abnormalities that might lead to inefficiency. Other restaurant chains that have implemented monitoring of fixed assets have seen an increase in labor productivity and lower costs.
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