Maureen Woodman of Woodman’s of Essex talks about Coronavirus and its impact on Woodman’s restaurant. Woodman’s has a long history of challenging events that it has weathered in the last 100 years. Maureen talks about the new take-out-only rules, delivery options, and the impact of Coronavirus on catering and events, as well as plans for the summer.

John Maher:      Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Maureen Woodman from Woodman’s of Essex, a restaurant and catering company in Essex, Massachusetts. Today, we are talking about coronavirus and Woodman’s restaurant. Welcome, Maureen.

Maureen Woodman:     Hey, John. Thanks for having me.

John:     Sure. So, Maureen, here we are again, another crisis for Woodman’s to face. You’ve been around for over a hundred years now, and there’s a lot of things that you’ve faced over the years, whether it’s been weather-related or world wars and things like that. What are some of the things that Woodman’s has had to deal with over the years?

Woodman’s History of Weathering Challenges

Maureen:            It’s really interesting. We started to look back over our 106 year history and all the things that we have been through. Of course, weather always being one of our biggest challenges, but when you go back, we got through World War I, which was in April of 1918, so over a hundred years ago, and then, of course, the Spanish flu, which they’re talking about every day. 500 million, worldwide, one third of the world’s population affected, the deadliest thing in history, and of course, we already invented the fried clam by then. And then the Great Depression in 1929, and Pearl Harbor being bombed in 1941, and then of course, 1942, the Americans were fighting in Europe, and 16 million Americans served in the war. Then the Normandy invasion in ’44, and the Cold War in ’47, and having Eisenhower as a president, the good years, 1953 to ’61, and John Kennedy’s assassination, and Vietnam, and then September 11, and the invasion of Iraq and stock market crashes. The list goes on and on.

All through this, Woodman’s has survived. We survived. We were there for the community. We reached out, this week, to Senator Bruce Tarr, trying to help, if there’s any way, with our property or our space for storage or anything they need, reaching out in the community, how we can help the elderly people around, if they need some food delivered or something that we can do there, trying to keep the parking lot open if the kids want to come and ride their bicycles and just tool around, right now, for open space while they’re all out of school. We’re just trying to go that way, which is the Woodman way, right? Just being really good community leaders.

Current Changes to the Restaurant

John:     Right. So, the governor has obviously closed down a lot of restaurant activity. You’re not allowed to go into a restaurant and eat in the restaurant. Where do we stand now with what is allowed, and what kind of changes have you made so far in terms of people getting food from Woodman’s?

Maureen:            Right now, what we’re doing, we’re open every day from 11:00 to 7:00. We’re working on takeout where you can come in, order your food, and actually carry it out. No food or beverage is allowed to be consumed under the roof on the property, but you can take your food out. You can call in with your credit card if you’d like, and when you get to Woodman’s, you can call us and tell us you’re outside. We’ll actually deliver it to you curbside right outside. Again, it’s the old Woodman way, carry out your food. Back in the day, everyone carried their food out and ate in the back of the parking lot.

We have everything being washed, cleaned, sanitized. We’re wiping down. We got rid of all of our industrial pumps, ketchup, anything like that. We went to all packets. We removed all the soda stations and cups, and all that. We’re going to all cans, so it’s all sealed. We’re still working and operating right now with a full menu, but we’re also trying to keep our inventory tight, in case we have to close again ourselves, and trying to see what the consumer is really looking for.

We seem to be selling, of course, the fried clams, but they’re also going for the chicken boats or the grilled cheese and the hot dogs right now. Clam chowder is a giant hit right now — it’s in the cup, it’s hot, it’s got a cover. It’s easy to take wherever you’re going to go. It’s a great thing to deliver to your parents or your grandparents, if you want to drop something off for the elderly, because they really shouldn’t be going out right now, but I feel everyone is doing good. We took all the tables out of the front of the restaurant, moved everything away, so that we have a lot of space in the main dining room so that you can have your social distancing while you’re waiting for your food. That’s what we’re doing right now.

Every day, we’re watching the updates. We’re on with the CDC. We’re following Governor Baker. We’re watching [Mayor] Marty Walsh in Boston. We’re paying attention to Donald Trump and the team that he’s put in place, trying to closely abide by the guidelines, but at the same time, make sure that if somebody needs food, we’re going to try to stay open as long as we can.

Future Plans

John:     Right. Do you anticipate that changing at all in the future as this continues? And if so, how are you going to face those issues, or do you have other things that you’re planning on making changes to in the restaurant in terms of the way that you serve food and things like that?

Maureen:            Right now, what we’re hearing — again, whether it’s rumor or not — is that there’s a chance that they may go to just drive-through or delivery only to keep everybody completely away. We do have windows that are the right size for your car, and we do have a space where you can actually pull right up, and we could create our own drive-through. Imagine this at Woodman’s. Just by accident, everything is already set up that way, kind of like an old-fashioned ice cream store, really, when you look at it from the inside-out. Back in the day, you’d just lift the window up and take the order, and then shut the window so that the mosquitoes didn’t fly in. Right?

John:     Right.

Maureen:            The other thing we’re going to do is possibly deliver to Manchester, Essex, and Hamilton-Wenham. We might just start our delivery in that area and see if we could logistically figure that out and how many drivers we may need. We are trying to keep on as many employees, also, as we can right now. If the kids can drive and if it seems to work, we’ll move on with that. But right now, we don’t have a crystal ball, but we’re trying. It looks to me like the next couple weeks are going to be a little bit stricter, is what I’m feeling. I don’t know if that’s true, but I feel that things are going to get a little tighter for the next couple weeks.

John:     The next couple weeks, and then potentially get a little bit better after that.

Maureen:            Yes. I think they’re going to get better. I wonder if they’re going to scale up the way they scaled down. I wonder. I don’t imagine, one day, it’s like, “okay, everybody is back to normal”. I don’t think it’s going to go that way.

John:     Right. They’ll probably go back…if they shut down taking out your food inside the restaurant, they might add that back in first and see how that goes, and then gradually let people back into the restaurant.

Maureen:            Yeah. I wonder if that’s the posture we’re going to see, but now, we’re just going with the way of our founder, Chubby. We’re going to be innovative. This is what we do best, and we have great food, and our food is local, and it’s sustainable. It’s not really coming from far away. We still have our clam diggers. We still have our lobster men. We still have the best lobster roll, like I said, the clam chowder. These are our basic foods that we sell the most of, and we know where they come from, so we’re not afraid of them. They’re not coming from another country or another state. They’re coming from right here in our own backdoor.

Essex Restaurants

John:     Right. Talk a little bit about the Essex causeway, where you’re located, and the situation with other restaurants, your neighbors, people that you know in the area. Are those restaurants open, as well, or is Woodman’s one of the only ones that’s open, or how is that shaking out?

Maureen:            So we have about 15 restaurant purveyors on the causeway, in the town of Essex. Again, remember we’re a population close to 3,000 people here, but we do have a lot of restaurants considering. More than half of the restaurants have chosen not to opt for the delivery or takeout service right now. Again, they may be regrouping. They might have wanted to reduce their inventory. They may have reduced their employees. We’ve talked to five or six of the businesses right now and each one of them made the decision based on their own protecting of their business right now.

Everyone’s trying to protect their business as well as their employees. Some people don’t think we should expose anyone. Some people think it’s a great service. Everyone has their own take, so we’re supporting all of them. But I would say out of the 15 restaurants right now, less than half of them have decided to go forward with the actual takeout right now. With that, they could still open up at any time. They might just be regrouping or changing their menu. We don’t know. I think that everyone just is taking a little pause right now to figure out what’s going on.

John:     Right, like you might need to change the menu a little bit, or reduce the number of items that you have available for takeout, because some things just don’t do well in takeout that you might serve in the restaurant. That sort of thing.

Maureen:            Absolutely.

What Customers Are Saying

John:     What are you hearing from your customers, whether it’s people calling or people that you see in person or on social media? What are your customers saying about Woodman’s staying open?

Maureen:            So this is something that…again, we’re a very large family. There are five owners at Woodman’s. So everybody knows the story. We’re the “clam clan”. And I would say with the 10 of us that are on the workforce right now, each one of us has great stories about customers or vendors reaching out to us, thanking us that we’re open. They’re actually putting extra tips on the counter for the kids in the kitchen, the workers. They’re so appreciative.

We had people come from Norwell today. We had five or six people come down yesterday from New Hampshire. All the people on Facebook are cheering us on and supporting us. And they’re like, “You’ll make it. Woodman’s is going to make it.”

We actually had a call today from New Rochelle, New York and you know that’s one of the hotspots right now in the country. That’s really on quarantine. And we are shipping three fried clam kits for Thursday because it’s their son’s birthday and his favorite thing is fried clams and they have no delivery, no takeout, nothing where they are. So I can’t even tell you, it was so… They were so excited that we were open. Driving up and down the street here — again, we live on this causeway — the only thing you’re really seeing is Prime, UPS, FedEx and the Amazon truck.

John:     Yeah.

Maureen:            So it’s really funny. Today Amazon is hiring 100,000 workers in the country. So it’s a big change, but again, the front runners, they’re going with it. They’re all going with it. So I’m glad that we can ship food to any state right now. So shipping is still allowed. If there’s anyone out there that wants to send food to one of the 49 states other than Massachusetts, or including Massachusetts, just give us a call and we’ll ship the food out for you.

Barbecue and Clambake Catering

John:     Right. You do a lot of barbecue and clambake catering and especially in the summer, but really from the spring through the fall, for sure. Do you see any impact in that side of your business, the catering side, and what’s happening with that?

Maureen:            So, yeah. So the catering division at Woodman’s is close to… Probably 35% of our gross revenue is from the catering division, and one of the places to take the hardest hit so far since the beginning of this virus has been the catering division, as well as our events and function hall. We’ve already lost probably 11 events between the catering, the function hall for March, and the function hall for April as well as catering.

And it’s really interesting, yesterday we got a giant deposit from a company, Hans Kissle, which is a sausage maker and they have their summer outing with us all the time. And when that check came in the mail, I can’t tell you what a great feeling…We actually looked at it and said, “Oh my God. We can stay on the island for three more days. We made it.” We’re so happy. We felt that way and we reached right out to our friends at Hans Kissle and said, “Thank you so much.” This is a beacon of hope for us. This is so hopeful for us. We’re so excited.

John:     When is that event that they’re having?

Maureen:            Their company outing is in August. So I thought that was a great sign and especially when they’re in the food business. It was even doubly special for us.

John:     Right. So they would know the issues that you might be having and it’s a nice vote of confidence that, “Hey, by August, for sure, everything’s going to be back to normal. And we’re going to be having our summer party, and you guys are going to still be a part of it. And we want you to know right away so that you can look forward to that.”

Maureen:            Exactly. And I think the industry that’s really getting the most fretful or scared is the wedding industry, which we do a lot of weddings too at our function hall, and our catering. And we’re creating a letter for all our brides for 2020 right now, telling them, “Look. We’re onboard. We’re here for you if anything happens.” We also still have a lot of availability at the function hall if there’s any brides that are not sure, that are getting moved right now, because the month of March and April you’re not allowed to have a large event.

John:     Right.

Maureen:            So a lot of these girls are trying to push ahead to July, August, September, October. So we still have some days at the Essex Room, so we’re sharing that with some of the wedding venues on the North Shore because they’re trying right now, scrambling to put these girls somewhere and rest them as well. And our advice is, “you will get married, it will happen and it will be wonderful. It’s going to happen. It’s going to be okay.”

John:     Right. You might have to put it off for a few months, but we have it covered.

Maureen:            Yeah. But what a scary thing, these girls have been planning these beautiful weddings for two years all over the North Shore, for March and April and early May. And right now, the cuffs are on, they can’t get married. So it’s a little bit, we’re trying to help them out as well. And, of course, with our catering division we can always cater your wedding, anywhere that we need to go to, to help you out.

Plans for the Summer

John:     Right. Looking forward to the summer, and that’s obviously your big time for the restaurant, and assuming that things are all kind of back to normal by summertime, do you have any big plans?

Maureen:            Yeah. Well it’s funny, one of our new partners here on the causeway is Ian Brady. He’s the owner at the Great Marsh, which is the new beer brewery. And Ian and I have been in discussions this winter about having him sell… They’re actually going to create one of their own craft beers to be sold at Woodman’s. We’re working on that. We’re looking to have Ian’s beer truck in the parking lot some days during the summer.

And then Ian had reached out to me last night and he said, “why don’t we start planning a giant festival for when this is over, where we can have fried clams and the Great Marsh beer and give people something to look forward to, maybe in late fall or early September.” Somewhere there, that is far enough out that we have something to look forward to and say, “Okay. This is all behind us and we made it through.”

And maybe, we talk about the “shoulder season” a lot in the tourism business. We have March and then, of course, we have October, maybe our November will end up getting us through what we’re missing in March and April. So that’s what we’re hoping on right now is really building on the end of the year, extending that shoulder because we know we’re going to have a hard time making up the first shoulder, which is March and April.

John:     Right. Well, a box of clams and a Great Marsh beer sounds great to me, so I will look forward to that as well. Thanks again for speaking to me today, Maureen. I appreciate it.

Maureen:            Great, John. And remember, follow us on Facebook and Instagram on woodmans.com. And, of course, you can always call the main phone number. We have people answering that phone all day long with what’s going on. We’re here if anyone wants us to deliver to the elderly, whatever is going on or anyone that thinks… If there is something you think we can help you with, give us a call or send us an email. But yeah, we’re really here to get through this together.

John:     Sounds great, Maureen. Thanks again. And you can visit the Woodman’s website at woodmans.com or call 978-768-6057.

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