ESSEX — On Friday, Woodman's of Essex will celebrate the invention of the fried clam, which it says Chubby Woodman first made on July 3, 1916, two years before the Spanish flu pandemic hit Cape Ann.

The famous fried clam and seafood restaurant survived that pandemic and by making safety the name of game looks to be doing fine during the coronavirus pandemic. Gross sales at Woodman’s, not counting catering or the function hall business which is at a standstill, are up 35% year-to-date, said Maureen Woodman, the Essex landmark's director of catering sales. 

“I think we are getting the customer because we are really keeping on safety,” she said. That emphasis has people making day trips from all over New England, New York and New Jersey for the restaurant's signature gluten-free fried clams “because they are hearing how safe it is at Woodman’s.”

Instead of Woodman’s of Essex waiting for the state to tell it what it could do during the COVID-19 pandemic, Maureen Woodman said staff “pulled back” operations at the famous fried clam and seafood restaurant to figure out what was best for employees, the business and customers.

A multitude of signs in the parking lot, on the building and inside tell customers where to park — every other space —  line up, order, and pick up their fish plates. 

Woodman, the wife of Douglas Woodman, the restaurant’s president and co-CEO, spoke during a Zoom virtual panel discussion of business leaders on the reopening of the retail and restaurant sector hosted by the Danvers-based North Shore Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday morning.

The panel included restaurateur George Carey, who operates Finz Seafood and Grill in Salem and Sea Level Oyster Bar in Salem and Newburyport; Jon Hurst, president of the Retailer’s Association of Massachusetts and a Beverly resident; and Erin Stewart, a human resource specialist and partner at OneDigital Health and Benefits.

At the start of the state’s Phase 2 reopening plan earlier this month, Woodman said, the restaurant's leaders realized they needed to calm down and work with the local Board of Health to keep employees and customers safe, all while delivering a fresh, quality clam plate.

Business may be up, but direct labor costs are up 40%, Woodman said. And the cost of food is escalating daily, as many vendors are slapping COVID sanitizing charges on their products.

While people in the industry may be talking about lobster prices going down, Woodman said: “Well, the clam prices, on Friday, a week ago, just went bonkers, so there is a huge clam war going on right now, which technically can happen.”

Prices can fluctuate daily, and now a large clam box (quart) costs $59.99, the highest she has ever seen, but the demand is there. The price is high because Woodman's and other restaurants are dealing with commodity-driven fresh seafood and factors related to the pandemic.

Reopening feedback

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March, restaurants were deemed essential but restricted to takeout, carryout or curbside pickup to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In the past few weeks, they have been allowed to offer outdoor dining and indoor dining with restrictions for social distancing. Bars are still ordered closed to prevent the spread of the virus.

“So far, so good,” said Carey, adding that the North Shore had “been tremendously blessed with good weather up until two days ago, which really helped with the outside (dining). What we are finding is there is a lot of training, a lot of reassuring and a lot of safety protocols that we just have to do.”

Carey said even with indoor dining available, guests prefer to eat outdoors and are willing to wait in order to do so.

“Those that do dine inside, they’re OK, we’ve got plenty of space in the restaurants. It’s gone well. We are checking employee temps every day,” Carey said.

News from across the country of states seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases gives Carey pause, however, making him want to “double down” on safety, he said. His restaurants are operating at 70% of their pre-COVID-19 sales, even without bar sales.

“Ultimately, the decision-making now is less in the hands of government and more in the hands of the consumer,” said Hurst of the state retailers association about when the consumer will come back.

Hurst gave a slide show presentation outlining a survey of retailers he presented about two weeks ago to a special state Senate economic committee.

About half of members surveyed said they were deemed essential, while others were forced to close.

About 7% of those surveyed said that from March to June, sales were “flat to up” compared with sales in 2019 during the same quarter. Many of those retailers were grocery stores.

About 13% of members reported sales were down 1% to 25%, while 80% saw sales drop anywhere from 26% to 100% in the quarter.

About half the businesses surveyed said they would recover to pre-COVID levels, about 21% were neutral, and a third did not see sales coming back. Roughly half of retailers surveyed said the state did a good job of balancing health and economic concerns, “but certainly a third felt otherwise,” Hurst said.

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