Clover CEO Julia Wrin Piper and her team could write a thesis on what they’ve all learned throughout their company’s swift bankruptcy process. The executive refers to the court proceedings as “evolution on steroids” since Chapter 11 Subchapter 5 bankruptcy pushes small businesses to quickly clarify their mission and clearly define their future business model.

The vegetarian-focused fast casual chain filed for bankruptcy on November 3 due to COVID’s economic impact. Pre-pandemic, Clover experienced rapid growth, with a 2019 AUV of $1.7 million and 18 percent 4-wall EBITDA. COVID forced a pivot to profitable meal boxes, contributing 20 percent of revenue. Despite improved sales in 2022-2023, failed funding and rising expenses led to bankruptcy.

The brand exited in late April with transparency, communication, and collaboration as its guiding principles. Hours of conversations with landlords, vendors, and suppliers allowed the chain to escape with only two closed restaurants and warehouse. The company did conduct limited corporate layoffs, but maintained a sizable employee headcount of 240 employees across its 13 locations.

Wrin Piper explains that the company has maintained an open-door policy, allowing staff to ask questions and stay informed about company developments. This transparency extends to customers, encouraging employees to share updates and experiences honestly. The approach aims to foster a supportive environment, ensuring all stakeholders are comfortable with the changes and can provide valuable input. Collaboration has been key as well, with Clover involving various partners and team members in decision-making processes. Wrin Piper mentioned that the company values ideas from both customers and staff, particularly regarding new dishes and storytelling methods in restaurants.

“That kind of collaboration has been kind of our North Star in guiding us in our conversations with everyone, with all of our partners throughout this process,” Wrin Piper says. “And I think for a local and regional business with local and regional partners, collaboration is the only way to move forward in these situations. And we’re really grateful that so many of our external partners have come to the table during this process.”

Wrin Piper also expresses gratitude for the transparency and cooperation of landlords, which enabled Clover to make difficult but necessary decisions about closing some locations. She highlights a significant effort to keep one downtown location open. Despite high rent and decreased foot traffic, Clover spent four months negotiating with the landlord, ultimately reaching a financially sustainable agreement. This process, Wrin Piper notes, not only benefits Clover and the landlord but also their customers.

“[The landlord] said the pandemic taught us that landlords and tenants have to work together; one cannot exist without the other. You have to be collaborative, you can’t be combative,” Wrin Piper says. “He said it was a very recent lesson they had learned. And I think that in a way, even though Clover has always been very collaborative, sometimes I think it takes going through hardship together to get to a place where everyone’s on the same page.”

Clover has been using locations as experimental spaces to strategize future openings. That includes the now-shuttered Assembly Row site, which included a specialty grocery market. This location was ultimately closed due to operational complexities and the need to prioritize other areas of the business. The executive team decided to focus on three core areas: restaurants, the meal box business developed during COVID, and catering. These areas were selected over the grocery market concept, which, while valuable for featuring products from farmers and artisans, did not fit the immediate business strategy.

With layoffs, Clover redistributed responsibilities among the remaining team and focused on employee retention. The company maintained clear communication, visited stores, and engaged with staff and customers to ensure a vibrant culture and dispel perceptions of liquidation. This approach helped retain talent and secured a seamless customer experience, despite the bankruptcy restructuring.

SVP of food systems Chris Anderson notes that fear often stems from the unknown and providing clarity and a clear path forward is crucial. On the day of filing, he personally visited or called vendors to explain the situation and maintain trust.

“It’s just really letting them know what’s going on, what the process is, and communicating it, over-communicating it, and really tell them what’s going on,” Andersen says. “And as they see those milestones achieved and what you’re talking about manifest, there’s trust in that relationship and everybody’s taking a step forward together.”

Because of those sustained relationships, Clover is able to continue menu innovation, including a new bowl category introduced at the end of 2023. The fast casual is also partnering with Tender Food to offer plant-based chicken and pulled pork, expanding its dessert menu, revamping breakfast offerings, and enhancing catering services with diverse, allergy-friendly options based on successful meal box recipes.

CMO Kiernan Schmitt says Clover—originally a food truck turned brick-and-mortar chain—focuses on serving more vegetables to more people, more often, and pushes climate change as its founding mission. Schmitt and the team have pored over customer feedback to drive business strategy, combining direct interactions with surveys to understand consumer trends. Aiming to make vegetarian fast food appealing and accessible, Clover maintains high-quality, locally sourced ingredients without sacrificing flavor, according to Schmitt. The brand targets younger, climate-conscious consumers, emphasizing the environmental benefits of eating vegetables. Clover innovates menu items, like the successful “buffalo” sandwich and “carrot lox” breakfast sandwich, to attract non-vegetarian customers and make vegetarian options more appealing.

Clover also has its mind on growth again, with a five-year plan to open 47 new units across the Greater Boston and New England areas. The brand will target smaller footprint restaurants around universities and urban locales. The chain is prepping for a brand refresh and entrance into new markets too.

However, that strategy doesn’t happen without a differentiated food product, says Wrin Piper.

“The number one thing that we’re focused on is fantastic vegetable based food. So food is our focus before we even think about where is the next location we’re going to open,” Wrin Piper says. “We’re thinking about what exactly does our menu look like next month, next quarter? Chris is basically driving a big menu expansion and new products going into the menu for this next year. So that’s really what we’re focused on this year. Coming out of bankruptcy, we are really focused on how do we make a big, tremendous menu that customers are going to enjoy? Not only if they come into the restaurants, but if they order at home or especially if they’re ordering catering from us. And then of course, the next step is laying out what is our new expansion plan, which will be a step-by-step build in what we’re currently working on.”

Fast Casual, Finance, Growth, Legal, Story, Web Exclusives, Clover Food Lab