Whether a customer has Celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, they are welcome to eat nearly everything on the menu at Woodman’s of Essex, a restaurant and catering company in Essex, Massachusetts. Listen to Maureen Woodman discuss the restaurant’s gluten-free options and how the restaurant has surged in popularity due to their gluten-free offerings.

John Maher: Hey, I am 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 Woodman’s complete list of gluten-free fare. Welcome, Maureen.

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

John: Sure. Maureen, it seems like gluten-free is really important on restaurant menus today. Why do you think that is?

Maureen: Well, I think a lot of people here are wheat sensitive. I think that there’s a lot of digestive issues that have come to the forefront in [the] last 20 years that people are really identifying that it’s all this processed food that we have. Then, of course, there’s a lot of kids that have been diagnosed with Celiac disease as well as adults. That was a disease that no one really knew what it was. People would have all these distended stomachs and crampiness afterwards. Nobody really nailed that down until probably the ‘70s, I would say. Then somewhere about the late ‘90s and 2000, it really just took off. People have changed their complete lifestyle to really go and be gluten-free. They feel like there’s less inflammation and less headaches. The stuff that this is tied into is really amazing, over the last 20 years, what’s come out there.

Gluten-Free Options at Woodman’s

John: Yes, and I think that restaurants really do want to cater to their clientele. They see this happening more and more, and they see people demanding this in a way. I think maybe people who had these issues like you said, like Celiac disease, they just dealt with it and figured, “Well, I guess I can’t go out to eat anywhere.” But now people are demanding like, “Hey, you need to cater to me as well.” That’s probably good and it’s great that restaurants are trying to help out with that. Do you get a lot of people asking if Woodman’s food is gluten-free, or what types of gluten-free options do you have?

Maureen: It has really taken over our restaurant. When you go back in the history over 100 years, we really still have almost all the menu items that we had on the menu then. As the years have went on, we’ve added them, but we’ve kept the original recipe. The irony is everything was already gluten-free. We cooked in lard so there were no fillers, because a lot of the oils now actually have some wheat and things in there that you probably wouldn’t want in your body.

We used corn flour, which is a derivative of corn meal. Even though it has the word ‘flour’, it’s just the way that it’s ground up. Anything made out of corn or maize is actually gluten-free. So, again, just by accident, we always had a gluten-free meal. Where other people use a lot of things that are called ‘ready-mixed’, those are like pre-packaged processed bread crumbs. They probably last longer, they’re probably less expensive. Corn meal has actually gotten very expensive for over the last few years. Then we have a lot of food, again, cooked — be it boiled, or steamed — there’s no additives in that. A lot of our processed food — we might have mayonnaise in our coleslaw, but that’s a 100% natural mayonnaise, so that doesn’t have any fillers in it.

I think one of the biggest surprises for our customers is that our chowder is gluten-free, because most people use what’s called ‘base’ for its thickening, and we never used that. We actually boil down our potatoes to use the starch of the potato water to actually thicken our chowder, and that’s how they did in the old day. So, it’s really funny that all this stuff is there. The only thing that we have, we do have like a tempura-style batter on our onion rings that does have King Arthur White Flour in there, but if you request gluten-free onion rings out when the restaurant is fairly slow, the fryers will make that for you.

Separate Area for Gluten-Free Food

John: Do they have to cook that in a separate part of oil so that it doesn’t go in the oil with the other stuff that has the flour in it?

Maureen: Correct. That’s one of the things that’s really changed for Woodman’s in the past 10 to 15 years. We’ve designated an entire space for just the gluten cooking. We have our own fryer laters that only gluten-free food will go in. For example, you would never cook those onion rings in that fryer later, and that’s something that we’ve worked really hard. We also keep all the tools that we use when cooking, like the sifter, and the actual tools, the screen that the fryer would drain the food with, the colander that the fried food goes into — all that stuff is now kept separate so that there is no cross contamination, because we realized even a tiny, tiny amount of gluten for somebody that has Celiac disease can really raise havoc in their digestive tract.

John: Right. Other than the onion rings, is there anything else that’s on your menu that’s not gluten-free?

Maureen: That’s really the only thing. If you were to get a sandwich at Woodman’s, that would be on bread that has gluten. That would be if you got a fish sandwich, or clam roll, or a hot dog, or a cheeseburger — but we also have gluten-free bread available now upon request. Other than that, everything else is gluten-free. It’s just funny where — and we sell gluten-free beer now too at Woodman’s because we had such an incredible surge of customers asking for gluten-free products. We’re really — I think you could look up Woodman’s — or put in gluten-free restaurant, just Google it up and you’ll find Woodman’s will pop right up.

Changes to Menu to Support Gluten-Free Options

John: So you said that a lot of these items have been gluten-free for years, right from the beginning just because you just happened to be using the corn meal and things like that? Other than the separating the fryer laters out, have you made any other sort of concessions, or changes, that you’ve made in the way that you cook the food in order to cater to people who have this issue?

Maureen: No, but what we do, when we take the orders, even though we’re a fast casual dining, whoever’s on the cash register will ask, almost lead you there, “Does anyone have any allergies, any sensitivities? Is there any way we can help you?” so probably in customer service and a lot more in advertising. We do quite a bit of the advertising now for the gluten-free just so that we can make people aware that they can come. We hear stories probably every month of how someone’s kids can’t have chicken fingers and French fries, and people are driving hours to get to Woodman’s so that their child can have French fries, because it’s like a treat for them, because all these other restaurant, they can’t have French fries. I think if anyone has kids, they know they usually like French fries. It’s amazing when people will call and thank us, or they’ll write it on Facebook and tell us what a big deal it was.

We have sports teams coming up, because if there’s a couple kids on the team that have Celiac or gluten, when they have their annual party for the end of the year for the team, they’re actually coming all the way up to Woodman’s because they want to make sure all the kids on the team can have the party.

John: That’s awesome. Great information, Maureen. Thanks again for speaking with me today.

Maureen: Thanks, John. Thanks for having me.

John: For more information about Woodman’s catering services or Woodman’s of Essex Restaurant, visit the Woodman’s website at Woodmans.com, or call 978-768-2559.

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