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Unruly crowds in Central Square

Unruly crowds in Central Square were at the root of police concerns about the opening of a 24-hour Clover restaurant to replace Hi-Fi Pizza at 496 Massachusetts Ave. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A 24-hour Clover Food Lab restaurant for Central Square won approval Tuesday from the License Commission, but the hours of operation passed on a split vote, with two members in favor and Police Commissioner Robert Haas abstaining.

Managers at Clover will have to come back three months after the expected opening in late fall so the commission can assess whether Clover can keep its all-day operation. Commissioners worried the site would become a danger to diners by attracting craziness and violence from elsewhere in the square – an occasional problem at its predecessor at 496 Massachusetts Ave., Hi-Fi Pizza, which stayed open until 3 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

“We’ve had issues because of two places operating in the area [where crowds] have gotten out of control. I’d hate to see you falling into that mix. You’ve established a pretty good reputation for your business, and it only takes one bad incident there and it could change the nature of your business in that area,” Haas said, reminding Clover founder and chief executive Ayr Muir that police have closed down Massachusetts Avenue three times recently as nightclub crowds have gotten out of control. “We’re dealing with those venues now.”

On May 17, 2013, police saw several fights break out in a crowd of 400, and that followed a May 5 stabbing that led to the arrest of a Medford man. Haas urged Muir several times to “research” the nature of late-night Central Square before asking to stay open 24 hours a day – and he noted to commission chairwoman Andrea Spears Jackson that there was no devoted police detail for the area.

“If that’s part of your business plan, I wouldn’t bank on it,” Haas told Muir, referring to having police constantly on the premises in the early morning. “I’m just saying.”

All-in approach

Muir, though, persisted in applying for the 24-hour license, assuring commissioners that his healthy fast-food chain had storefronts that were “generally bright stores, clean and friendly and attracting positivity, and we expect that would be the same” in Central Square, which is expected to have more than 1,400 square feet of space and seat 49. Management would also staff up for late-night hours, especially on weekends, Muir said, promising to have three or more workers as the company felt its way through the early months of being open overnight. “We’ve had very peaceful and orderly operations at our other restaurants … I think we can handle it and operate a great business there.”

While Haas called that a “dangerous” approach and suggested Clover instead start with a closing time and add hours after experience in the square, Muir said it was important to launch as an all-day eatery to capitalize on early media attention and word of mouth.

“There are a lot of peaceful customers who would love to have something to eat in the middle of the night. I think it’s a shame if we’re focusing only on the negative,” Muir said.

There were letters submitted to the commission in support of a 24-hour Clover, as well as a petition Muir said had 444 signatures collected from customers at the Cambridge stores. This will be the chain’s fourth Cambridge store after Harvard Square, Inman Square and Alewife, and its sixth overall including Burlington and Boston sites. Clover started with food trucks and maintains them throughout the region.

“When I was a student, I always wished there was a place to go late at night,” said Muir, who was familiar with Central Square from his years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. “A lot of the MIT population is awake all night long.”

Late-night options

His student years overlapped with The Tasty Sandwich Shop, a 24-hour diner in Harvard Square, but since its closing in 1997 the city’s only all-day eateries have been a Dunkin’ Donuts site that now closes and gourmet mini-marts with tables for dining. The store in Porter Square has closed, leaving only one in Harvard Square.

The Central Square eatery open latest until Clover opens is Moody’s Felafel Palace, at 25 Central Square, which is open until 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.  In Harvard Square, two eateries are open late: Felafel Corner at 8 Eliot St., open until 3 a.m.; and International House of Pancakes at 16 Eliot St., open until 4 a.m.

The Central Square Clover might have a late-night menu, Muir said.

Also speaking in support of the restaurant was landlord Michael Simon, of Central Property Management, who lauded Muir and his staff and helped clear up a mystery from March: Why Hi-Fi was ousted after more than 45 years in its Massachusetts Avenue location, with Simon saying the mechanical systems serving the kitchen needed too much work despite Hi-Fi having passed city inspection.

After a fire at Bedworks at 15 Central Square in March 2013, Simon ordered an intensive look at his buildings’ safety systems and “discovered serious problems with the exhaust.”

His electricians were “crawling in the walls,” Simon said, while Fire Chief Gerald Reardon agreed city inspectors hadn’t checked systems serving Hi-Fi Pizza to that degree.

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