Considering the perishability of live seafood, ordering “product” at Woodman’s is a complex undertaking. First the restaurant and any number of clambakes require their specific allotments of clams, fresh lobsters, mussels, and other victuals, then there’s the Top Deck, The Essex Room, and other venues to consider. While responsibility for ordering most product is now shared with the restaurant’s general manager (and Steve’s son) Eian, Steve himself continues to purchase the clams and Doug handles the lobsters, just as they’ve done for more than 30 years.
“First we try to buy locally because it’s a better clam,” says Steve, “then we turn to our regional suppliers and most of those are in Maine. It takes a long time to build relationships with a dealer because I won’t accept clams from just anyone. I only buy quality, and they need to understand our specifications.”
Whether purchased shucked (for deep frying) or as steamers, the soft-shelled longneck clam is a very special commodity with a ceaselessly vacillating price. “It’s like watching the stock market,” says Steve, who keeps tabs on what others are paying for their clams, while maintaining a meteorologist-worthy knowledge of the region’s weather. “I need to know where it’s raining, and how hard, all the way up to Canada. After too much rain they’ll shut an area down and I’ll need to rely on another. I’m always working through my list of dealers to make sure they all get some business even when the weather’s good. It’s like a big puzzle. You always need to keep your options open and you never know how it’s going to come together.”
A clam’s shelf life is fleeting and Steve places his orders nearly every day. “Since they don’t deliver on Sundays or holidays it takes some doing to make sure we have just enough, but not too many,” he says. “Over-order and they’ll go to waste, under-order and I’ll end up having to run out to pick up more product myself, in the middle of a rush.”
Although lobsters are not as susceptible to the vagaries of the weather, Doug has his own puzzle to piece together. Most of his suppliers are also based in Massachusetts and Maine and, after making his lobster apportionment for clambakes (as many as 2,000!), he must consider the restaurant’s highly variable requirements. “On a busy day we’ll sell 500 pounds of lobster out front,” he says. “But even though we have three lobster tanks, I don’t like to load them, because the ammonia builds up when you hold too many and you can lose them. I buy my lobsters every other day and on Monday mornings I like my tanks to be just about, but not quite, empty.”
It’s a reckoning process worthy of a soothsayer. Whereas 1,000 pounds of lobsters might be sold one weekend, a change in the weather, or some other arbitrary factor, might mean half that amount is sold the next. Yet as verified in the workbooks he keeps (and the handful of lobsters left in the tank), Doug’s spot-on record for divining how many lobsters will be sold over a given two-day period is a wonder to behold. And as with Steve’s longneck clams, the extraordinary payoffs from all that effort are even more of a wonder to consume.