Remembering a Port pioneer

Bryan Eaton/Staff PhotoGrog founder RIchard Simkins under the restaurants’s namesake.

NEWBURYPORT — Richard Simkins, a well-known entrepreneur who built businesses and a bon vivant who developed friendships, died early yesterday. He was 73 and had suffered from cancer.

Since 1970, Simkins owned the Grog, a landmark restaurant and music venue in Newburyport’s downtown. He was also founder and part-owner of RR Traders, a gift shop next to the eatery.

Until several years ago, he was owner and operator of Perennial Gardens in Newbury.

He was a cheerful, successful businessman who had as many friends as anyone in the Newburyport community, friends say.

Simkins played an important role in the rebirth of the city’s central business district. Because he developed and sustained a quality restaurant in the downtown in the early ’70s, he was viewed as one of the key merchants of the “new” downtown. At the time, Newburyport was struggling to restore its deteriorating brick storefronts, and it sought out entrepreneurs to bring energy and draw customers. Several business owners were among those first pioneers, but Simkins is one of the very few whose business survives and thrives today. 

In an interview with The Daily News in 2010, Simkins said that a key to running a successful business was the efforts of good staffers. For many years, his wife, Pat, was a key manager in family enterprises. Patricia Roux-Lough Simkins died in 2009.

His daughter, Nicole Nichelmann, and her husband, Bill Nichelmann, now run the Grog.

Staffers at the Middle Street restaurant were subdued yesterday but the establishment was open.

Family members say they have not yet made plans for a funeral and/or memorial service, but some observance will likely be held.

Simkins was a native of New Jersey, and graduated from Colby College.

Both his grandfathers had been farmers and he once traced his interest in flowers and gardening to early inculcation by family members.

In the late ’60s, shortly after graduating from college, he started a restaurant in Manchester-by-the-Sea. But he concentrated his efforts in Newburyport shortly thereafter, opening the Grog on Middle Street, and buying properties in the downtown.

The community was just starting to take an interest in restoration and preservation, and real estate veterans say that prices were low. He once said he bought the four-story Grog for $36,000.

“When Richard took over the Grog, there were not many quality places to eat in Newburyport,” said Josiah Welch, a retired business executive who was friends with Simkins for four decades. “He transformed it, and it played an important role at the time.

“He was a smart businessman who was very creative with whatever he did. He was energetic, witty, interesting and a very special person.”

Elizabeth Welch, who with her husband, Chuck Christensen, were friends with Simkins since 2004, said, “Richard was very welcoming when we arrived and though he was a major figure in the community, he put me at my ease.

“He was kind of a Renaissance man, with many interests and a great curiosity. When a group of us went to Normandy (France), he was wonderful company because he wanted to see everything and learn as much as he could.” She is the niece of Josiah Welch.

For many years, Simkins ran the Grog in downtown Newburyport and Perennial Gardens on his spacious property in Newbury.

At his rural retreat, he created a swan pond, a series of golf greens and vast collections of flowers and shrubs that impressed even veteran gardeners. He and a dedicated team ran a retail operation just a few dozen feet from the entrance to his stately brick home.

“Over the years I have learned to juggle my distractions,” Simkins said in a 2010 interview with The Daily News.

“Actually, I like to be a hands-on person whether it involves a garden or developing a menu.”

Simkins seemed to travel with a smile on his face and a song in his heart. At parties, he had a clever story to tell; when in business mode, he greeted customers with enthusiasm and charm.

Those who knew him say he was always learning and could find merit in either friends or strangers.

“He was not judgmental,” said Elizabeth Welch. “He had so many friends in this community.”

For many years, he annually handed out plastic cups from the Grog that carried the year and just a brief inscription, “Cheers.”

That singular sentiment would seem to be a good place to start when attempting to sum up the remarkable Richard Simkins.

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