Waiting is hard, but the food at Woodman’s of Essex is more than worth the wait. Maureen Woodman, of Woodman’s of Essex, discusses the psychology of the line snaking outside of the door at Woodman’s. Listen or read more to find out how to order at Woodman’s, and that patience is a virtue.

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’re talking about the psychology of the line at Woodman’s. Welcome, Maureen.

Maureen Woodman: Hi John, thanks for having me.

Waiting for Clams

John: Sure. Maureen, tell me about the line at Woodman’s restaurant and what it’s like during the summer, especially on those holiday weekends.

Maureen: I think the line is really, really part of our story and the legacy and the history of Woodman’s. Woodman’s is located on the Causeway in Essex, Massachusetts, which is probably, I would guess maybe and eighth of a mile, half a mile long. I don’t know how long it is really.

It’s a little bridge with all these restaurants and the river’s on both sides of the street, and our restaurant’s actually across from the ocean, but the river’s behind us at high tide. And we sit right on the sidewalk. When the restaurant was built, it’s actually, it’s too close to the sidewalk . . . and on this sidewalk, the people line up because the entry way at the restaurant is so small, it’s probably a little like 10 by 10. So even though we have this gigantic line that goes down the street with 2-300 people in it, it’s really because the foyer of the restaurant, like most clam shacks is really tiny. It’s only like a six by six hallway.

John: All right. So, you don’t have 50 people in the lobby all waiting to sit down at their tables, they’re all waiting outside.

Maureen: Exactly. And we rounded the restaurant self-service so you go up and you get in line so it’s not like you’re seated. That’s another reason why there’s a line because you’re waiting to order at this pickup window which is on a chalkboard. And of course, there’s no menu that you’re handing out, there’s no waitress service. The line has a tendency to go slow because once you get to the chalkboard, like, “Oh, I want this, I want that. I want this, I want that.” It’s kind of a different feeling. And then of course everything comes in a different side and everything comes in a different shape, whether it’s a play or a boat or a box. Small, large, medium and it takes a long time to actually order at Woodman’s. I think that’s the reason that the line is created. But on a holiday weekend when you see that line going down the street like that, you’re like, “Ooh, what does that mean?”

The Line Attracts Other Customers

John: Right. So do you think that when people see that line, that it actually attracts more people to come to the restaurant because they’re seeing, “Wow, that’s a really popular place, it must be good,” or do you think it might keep people away because they’re saying, “Well, I don’t want to wait in a line for that long.” Or something like that?

Maureen: I think that’s why we’re doing this little podcast days about the psychology in line at Woodman’s. What does the average person think when they see a line? “Wow, it must be something going on there.” Or, “Oh my God, I would never wait in that line. Can’t be that good.”

I have to say that the line definitely draws attention. I’m one of the people that’s in favor of the line. I call the line the heartbeat of our business, I always say when someone says, “Oh my God, that line’s ridiculous.” And I say, “Yeah, if we didn’t have the line, what would we do then?”

To me the line is showing that there’s something really, really exciting or delicious or happening or there’s buzz in there. There’s energy, and you want to be part of that line. You want to be seen in that line.

John: Right. So, you think above anything else, it just makes it seem like there’s great food there, good people and I’ve got to be a part of that, and I’m going to hop at the back of that line and wait and get in there?

Maureen: Absolutely. I think that the line is like a magnet. You drive down the street in the causeway or you come up the river in a boat, or you walk right down and you’re like, “I got to know what’s going on.” I think it just sucks you right in. The line just . . . “I got to go there.”

John: What does that look like when you’re . . . say you’re driving down the street or you mentioned you’re coming on the cruise boat or something like that, or you maybe just got a tour of the Essex river, and you see that line. What does that look like?

Maureen: I think that the visual of the line tells us how we judge the weather of the day. You know that when there’s a beautiful day and you just came down, you know, we call it down river, coming up river from down river, which is Crane Beach. Everyone goes on their little boats and goes down the Cranes. We go to the backside there a little bit different than the public side.

When you see that line, you know that it was a beautiful day in Essex, around the North Shore. The weather was perfect. The temperature was just right. Because if you are on your boat and it’s pouring rain out in the middle of the summer, and you drive down, most likely you’re not going to see a line at Woodman’s. Because not too many people want to stand outside in the rain and somehow the rain and fried clams don’t seem to go together.

Passing the Time in Line

John: Right. Everybody thinks about nice, sunny beach day when they think of a fried clams, right? What do people do to pass the time while they’re waiting in line at Woodman’s? Anything to have fun?

Maureen: We have incorporated probably in the last 10 years I would say, a hospitality table. On there you can buy some of the retail items. We have all the information about Woodman’s and the story of the fried clam. We also have information about our clambakes catering business.

We usually give out lemonade and oyster crackers for people that are in the line. And we just kind of tell you all the fun facts. It’s also like an information booth, where’s the closest ice cream? Where’s the closest beach? How do I get to the highways? Or anything else I should do when I’m in Essex?

But that’s usually what we do. We also have outside music that’s been streamed off the outside of the restaurant, so we keep entertainment out there. And usually every once a month or something, we have either some banjo or live guitar or a stroller. We’re actually looking to get a juggler this year to go through the line. We’ve done some trivia out there where we give a way prices or stuff from the retail store.

We try to keep you as engaged as possible. We’ve also added tents to the line because we know people are really sensitive to the sun now and not a lot of people . . . that’s why one of our biggest fears is that the front of the restaurant’s really sunny and a lot of people right now, they’re very concerned with not standing in the 10:00 to 2:00 sunlight. So, we actually tent the line now on the weekend.

John: Has Woodman’s done anything else over the years in terms of like how you’re handling so many customers at once or anything that sort of make that line move faster?

Maureen: Not really. We’ve had a lot of talk about how much pressure the kitchen can handle. How quick those kids can go? How many fryolators can get in there? Should we have more cash registers to take it quicker? Or do we stay with what we know best? And we still handle every customer one at a time as opposed to having multiple registers going because a lot of people have come for this one pilgrimage to Woodman’s from who knows, they might have come from Wyoming, they’re so excited and we spend time with them at the register.

We try to educate them when they have questions about what should I get? How does it work here? You know, how do I get a drink? How do I get a lobster? Because at Woodman’s, you go bouncing around. You get your lobsters out front. You get your drinks at the bar, you get your food at the window, but really we have people, first timers that have heard about us, read about us, you know, we’re 105 years old. This place isn’t going away. And they want to hear the story.

We do have a tendency to talk a long time to our customers, which again, I think people realize this when they’re coming repetitively, they usually come during the week and not the weekend because they know that’s when the tourists are really there.

Slow Service Means More Time to Build Community

John: But like you said too, you could maybe do something to make that line move faster. Add another register and get more people through the register. But then the kitchen itself can only handle so many people at once and so they’re going to wait one way or the other. Whether they’re waiting in line to order or whether they’re going to wait to get their food, they’re going to wait anyway. In your opinion, just keep things the way that they have been and people might wait a little bit longer to order their food but then, it doesn’t take that long to get your food once you’ve ordered it.

Maureen: I think that’s it. My brother-in-law, my husband are always out there timing the line. They’ll pick somebody with the most colorful outfit in the line and they’ll time them. And they make sure that they time them at a specific place outside from the time it takes them to get to the cash register, to get their food to get to the table. To make sure that the line is not gone a little wonky. Because they know how long it takes from a certain point.

And I think it’s . . . like I said, it’s really important, a lot of people don’t forget we’re gluten free now. People have all these food allergies, we’re dealing with that. A lot of people might like their food lightly cooked, over cooked, well done. We really try to accommodate your food specialty when you’re there because it’s expensive and it’s something that we want you to really have a great experience at Woodman’s. That’s really what we’re trying to do.

We want you to come back or we want you to tell somebody about it when you leave.

John: Great. And I think that Woodman’s is one of the most popular restaurants on the North shore of Massachusetts, and it’s certainly known for having some of the best fried clams in Massachusetts and of course, your ancestors invented the fried clam so I think that’s what draws all of these people in. You’d see all of that history whenever you see that long line of people like you said, just coming from miles around to come to Woodman’s.

Maureen: Definitely. Definitely. It’s who we are.

John: That’s really great information Maureen, thanks again for speaking with me today.

Maureen: Thanks John, thanks for having me.

John: And for more information about Woodman’s restaurant, visit the Woodman’s website at Woodmans.com or call (978) 768-6057.

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