Editor's note: This is the first in a series of profiles of people who live the greater Newburyport area.
1As owner of both The Grog restaurant in Newburyport and Newbury Perennial Gardens in Newbury, even the smallest details come under his purview as he oversees two of the most detail-oriented businesses in the area.
"Over the years I have learned to juggle my distractions," said Simkins, a native of New Jersey who settled in New England almost five decades ago after graduating from Colby College in Maine. "Actually, I like to be a hands-on person, whether it involves planting a garden or developing a menu."
Simkins is observing his 40th year of owning The Grog, having purchased it in 1970 for about $36,000 after selling a small restaurant in Manchester-by-the-Sea. It is now a thriving venue, sometimes hosting as many as 1,200 customers a day for meals, drinks, live music and occasional private parties. But the restaurant was not always a success.
'When we started, Newburyport didn't have nearly as many visitors as it does now," said Simkins. "In the early years, I was flipping real estate properties to make enough to keep it going.
"Now the city has days when it is full of tourists, but there are so many more restaurants to choose from. But I'm not complaining; we have a steady business, with not much of a drop-off from summer to winter."
As if the four-floor Grog wasn't enough to keep Simkins busy in the early '70s, he bought a property on Orchard Street in Newbury in 1974 that he has developed into Newbury Perennial Gardens. It not only sells a variety of plants and trees to consumers but features ponds, gardens and sweeping greens that in season play host to tours, parties and wedding receptions.
"I like to see the results of my labor," he said. "Developing Perennial Gardens has given me the opportunity to try out new ideas, like building a pond or creating gardens that can serve as the background for social events."
Simkins said that a key element to running the two disparate businesses has been the efforts of good staffers. For many years, his late wife, Pat, was a key manager in all the family enterprises. His daughter Nicole Nichelmann and her husband, Bill Nichelmann, now run The Grog.
Valuable employees over the years at the 300-seat Grog have included Michele Gallant, Lesley Fitzgerald, Doug Johnson, Bruce Brown and Michael Creamer. Simkins said that The Grog employs more than 60 each summer, many of them part-time staff earning money for school expenses.
At Newbury Perennial Gardens, manager Heather Creed has been with the business since it opened.
Claudia Harris, a friend of Simkins who owns the Elephant's Trunk in Newburyport, said that Simkins is an original when it comes to business. "Richard is a Renaissance man in the areas of vision and creativity," she said. "His success has been a result of good ideas and hard work. In the downtown area, for instance, he developed the idea of window boxes and a greater emphasis on decoration. His leadership has been valuable."
Josiah Welch, a retired executive and businessman who has known Simkins for many years, said, "He is very inventive, and his work at improving The Grog has resulted in the success it is today. He has also put a lot of imagination and effort into Perennial Gardens and his personal gardens there. It's a delight to visit the grounds in the summer."
Though many regulars know The Grog as a modern pub where everyone knows your name, the restaurant has a lengthy and colorful history. After serving in the Civil War, Alfred W. Thompson opened a "Ladies and Gents Eating and Oyster House" that served local sailors, travelers and statesmen until Prohibition began (1920). When serving alcohol became legal again in 1933, Spud Leary opened the Pilot House, which hosted the public through the '60s.
In 1969, the business was renamed The Grog after the English navy's traditional ration of rum and water. Simkins arrived a year later, and he and his team developed it into one of the area's most popular retreats.
Keeping the restaurant in shape is an ongoing challenge, Simkins said. In recent weeks he has had to install new boilers and make major upgrades on the roof.
But for Simkins, a jovial host, such costly (if necessary) updates cannot ruin a good day. "I eat, drink and garden for a living," he said with a smile. "I envy no one."