When Ayr Muir founded Clover Food Lab in 2009, a Massachusetts-based food truck, he had a problem. He knew that he wanted to create a new type of fast-food establishment, one that provided healthy and wholesome meal choices that changed daily, allowing for plenty of variety and experimentation. At the time, however, there was no POS on the market that was flexible enough to keep up with menu changes several times a day. So, he did what anyone with a dream and a dollar (and lurking around the alleys of Cambridge in a truck) might do: he hired an MIT alum to build a custom POS system.
Muir paid the guy $500 to build the POS for his rst food truck. Since then, Clover, and the food truck industry in general, have grown like weeds. Food trucks are now a more than $857 million a year industry, and Clover has grown from a single food truck to include seven brick-and-mortar restaurants and ve trucks.
PYMNTS recently caught up with Muir to talk about building his own POS, his decision to start going cashless, and what’s ahead for the food lab.
Birth of a modern food truck – fueled by ingenuity, ambition and mPOS?
When Muir rolled out his first food truck, he knew that a typical POS system would not be good enough. He needed a new type of payment system – an mPOS system – that would allow him to accept lots of payments quickly, no matter where the truck was parked that day.
“I looked at all the existing systems and, at that point in time, they weren’t coming close to what we needed done,” recalled Muir, who also happens to be an MIT grad. Muir wanted a system, he said, that could be changed on-the-fly and allow his business to serve as many customers as quickly as possible.
When he hired the MIT alum to build the POS system, he was willing to take an iterative approach. “I think he quoted me like $5,000 for the job and I told him, ‘why don’t you give me a $500 version?’” he said. When told it wouldn’t work “perfectly” for $500, Muir recalls saying, “‘But the $5,000 version isn’t going to work perfectly either, so we’ll make adjustments.’”
That decision allowed Muir and Clover to quickly and economically adapt to their constantly changing menu and customer needs, and complete transactions. While the initial POS has gone through several updates and has been worked on by different developers since its launch, the system is still in use and the core tenants remain the same.
Clover menus can change multiple times over the course of a day, Muir explained. The custom POS is able to handle the constantly changing menu, while still moving customers through the checkout process quickly, he said. It’s also device-independent, allowing Muir and his team to access it from both Android and iOS devices.
Additionally, the system can help Muir determine what menu items to experiment with next. Clover is currently working on adding a live-updating online menu, which will refresh with new additions in real-time. An order-ahead system is also in the works, he said. While Muir said he would use an “off-the-shelf” solution if one was available, he said that none of the available solutions give him all the features he needs – or, at least, as quickly as he’d want them.
“There’s a lot of order-ahead systems, but when you talk to them about how changing the menu works, they say ‘oh yeah we don’t have a problem, we do changes all the time,’” Muir said. “You ask about the process and they say ‘you submit the change and we usually get it done in a week to 10 days.’ And for my business that’s a non-starter.”
The POS system itself does not process any payments; all the company’s processing is through Square, Muir said, and credit cards are currently accepted via the Square Reader. Muir said that has left him free to focus on things that he feels are more crucial to his company’s success – like keeping the menu interesting and ever- changing and providing a customer experience that relies on fast service.
While POS for many merchants is all about the sale itself, Muir looks at it differently. “I think the POS is not about payments at all,” Muir said. “It’s about relationships with customers and transactions, and how that can drive the rest of your business.” Obviously, without a way to handle payments quickly, the business would falter, but for Muir the POS is more a means to focus on what’s more important to him. “My expectation of what we’re going to get out of our POS is going to have a lot to do with things that have nothing to do with payments.”
Those expectations, Muir said, include using the POS to inform him and his staff on how ef ciently employees are completing tasks – and if they are improving (if there’s need for improvement) – how well new menu items are being received, and how sales projections compare with daily transactions at different locations.
Rolling toward cashless
Last year, Muir eliminated the acceptance of cash at all of Clover’s food trucks. So far, he said, the change has been well-received by customers, and has provided lots of bene ts for the business.
“Cash is really expensive to handle,” Muir explained. “I think in particular on the trucks, we have some very busy trucks, so I was always concerned about risk and safety of my employees. I love not having cash aboard the trucks and I think they love it too. It’s just one less point of risk and I think it’s a safer way to run business. It also means we don’t have to handle dropping the cash at banks. There’s a lot of expense to handling cash and in my mind I think it’s more creative than the credit card fees at the end of the day.”
Muir said he wants to expand the cashless policy to Clover’s restaurants as well, but he is still hesitant to turn cash-paying customers away. In order to do away with cash entirely, he said he foresees using a kind-of “reverse ATM” that would dispense a preloaded debit card in exchange for paper money.
While no such machine currently exists, Muir and his team are working on it.
“When talking to some manufacturers,” he said. “We’re hoping they can develop something sometime in the next year and then we’ll move to cash only in restaurants.”
Muir said that constantly developing his own solutions has proven to be key to his business’ success.
“We’re doing the work and the innovation and it’s working really well,” Muir said. Given the ever-evolving nature of mPOS, that may help Muir and his team. “There wouldn’t be another way for us to be doing the things that we’re doing,” he said.
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