Clover Food Lab CEO Ayr Muir might be paying you a socially-distanced visit. The founder of the cult-favorite locavore chain (and his daughter) have been taking a break from their quarantine cooking show to hop in a refrigerated van and deliver boxes packed with the makings of chickpea fritter sandwiches, Impossible meatballs, breakfast sandwiches, brownies, surprise gifts (like stalks of local rhubarb) and more.

“It’s a team effort right now,” Muir says. “We’re having to try things differently but I’m lucky to have folks working with me who have been with Clover since the beginning helping take us into this new uncharted phase. Going back to ground zero has allowed for some really great new ideas to bloom.”

Clover paused restaurant operations entirely on March 17, choosing not to offer takeout or delivery during the first three months of the pandemic. On June 6, the fast-casual chain launched meal boxes as a way to safely feed customers, employ staff, and funnel money to Clover suppliers and farmers.

Starting with an initial group of 100 customers, Clover has had to quadruple capacity, and has now sold over a thousand boxes. The Clover at Home Meal Box program will likely represent a new business arm for Clover, remaining even after restaurants begin to re-open, which Clover plans to do slowly and carefully beginning with takeout at select restaurants on Monday June 22. Clover is also looking to the future; construction resumed today on a previously-unannounced location in the Prudential Center.

Clover will replace Au Bon Pain, which shuttered in September, and be next-door neighbors to Sweetgreen.

In the meantime, Clover’s fleet of delivery vans, which used to shuttle produce and prepared-food multiple times each day to Clover’s 13 restaurant locations, are now filled with stacks of Breakfast Boxes, Classic Boxes, Mediterranean Boxes, and Post-Meat Boxes. 4 themed boxes are on offer, each including

ingredients and recipes to make 3-5 Clover meals. Smaller add-on boxes include soups, salads, spreads, mushrooms and desserts.

Starting Monday, customers can order a-la-carte items (sandwiches, platters, fries, breakfast, coffee) from CloverHUB (1075 Cambridge St), CloverKND (5 Cambridge Ctr), CloverBUR (100 Burlington Mall Rd), CloverWST (in the Westford Whole Foods), and CloverSUD (in the Sudbury Whole Foods). Hours of operation for restaurants will be 7am-7pm Monday through Saturday, with limited hours on Sunday. All orders for a-la-carte will happen via the Clover App. All orders will be placed on tables outside the restaurants or directly in the customer’s car and customers will not be allowed inside.

Muir, who is an MIT-trained scientist, emphasized the way Clover is using technology to create contactless experiences that maximize safety of staff and customers.

“Because we run our company on our own platform and we have an in-house tech team, we’re able to respond in a more specific and dynamic way to all the wild changes that the pandemic has unleashed,” Muir said. “For a customer, that means you can pull up in your car or on foot, press a button to say “I’m here,” and we can deliver your food to you in a way that’s completely contact-free. Owning our own tech is also allowing us to limit how many customers show up to Clover in a given time period which can limit crowding.”

Muir believes that a slow re-opening can be done safely. “I didn’t want to blast through this like other national chains have done,” he said. “Staying open at all costs did not make sense to me in those early months. When we decided to re-open I looked more to mom-and-pop, locally owned restaurants like Cafe Sushi who are taking things slow and deliberate. That’s also why we started with meal boxes.”

Customers can order boxes twice a week on Tuesdays and Saturdays for pickup at CloverHUB (1075 Cambridge St) or for delivery within a 30-mile radius. Delivery is free for orders over $120, and is done directly by Clover staff members, instead of a third party. Clover will not activate their previously-used Caviar or DoorDash accounts for these newly re-opened brick-and-mortar stores.

“We’re really disturbed by the fees they charged small restaurants during the pandemic and we don’t want to hand all our customer information over to Silicon Valley companies,” Muir says. “Our choice to do self-delivery for the meal boxes has been a point of proof that we can do this ourselves without relying on third parties.”

Clover is eager to use their massive commissary space to produce food for the community. When a customer purchases a box, they can also donate a box to a family in need via a partnership with Food For Free, a 39-year-old food rescue organization near Clover’s commissary in Inman Square. For every two boxes donated by Clover customers, Clover will match with a third box.

“Clover is a people-focused company,” Muir adds. “Like many things this whole situation has brought us a lot of questions we don’t have answers for. It’s been super important to us that we’ve had great relationships with our guests. How does that look when it’s no longer in-person? We’re trying to figure that out with stuff like the cooking show, free surprise gifts of rhubarb in peoples’ boxes, and the donation matching idea. The response has been really sweet. The number of notes and the way we’ve touched folks’ lives gives me a lot of hope for the future.”

Fast Casual, News, Clover Food Lab