NEWBURYPORT – William R. Nichelmann, a California native who settled in Newburyport and helped build The Grog restaurant, died recently at age 45 of complications related to cancer.
Nichelmann, who grew up in the Sacramento area, had said he wanted to experience a new region and different culture, so he grabbed a ride in 1999 with a fellow student at San Diego State University – who was from Newburyport — and came to this area.
Nichelmann had taken culinary courses at San Diego State, and put those skills to work at The Grog. He did numerous jobs at The Grog, and advanced at the iconic Middle Street restaurant.
“Bill had always liked working with food,” said his mother, Karen Anderson. “As a youngster, he would help me in the family kitchen. I think he found his place at the Grog. It was a busy restaurant, and he had a strong work ethic. It was a good match.”
In 2006, Bill married Nicole Simkins, the daughter of Richard Simkins, owner of The Grog, and Pat Simkins, a designer. Both are now deceased.
Bill Nichelmann worked his way up to become manager of The Grog and was a popular administrator. This year The Grog, now co-owned by Bill and Nicole Nichelmann, observed its 50th anniversary of continuous operation.
“Bill was a great manager, a very authentic person,” said Krista Brassard, a longtime bartender at the popular venue. “He cared about employees and could do everything around the restaurant.”
Employees say that the versatile Nichelmann could develop menus, seat guests and if a coffee machine needed fixing, he would do it.
Brassard said, “For many employees, he was the patriarch of The Grog family.”
Former Grog owner Richard Simkins died in 2014. He had been a force in the Newburyport commercial community since the restaurant’s opened in 1971.
Nichelmann's role changed at that time, and he became more active in the community. He was a member of the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and he promoted the restaurant through special events and public exposure, but he stayed in close touch with day-to-day operations.
“Bill and I were very close,” said Peter Cormier, who became the general manager in 2015. “We consulted about all aspects of the restaurant. He was active on a regular basis.
“He trusted me to run the place, and he was a liaison to the community," Cormier said.
Chris Lafaro, a floor manager who has been at The Grog for 12 years, said of Nichelmann, “He was the best person I have worked for. He listened to what employees said and he took an interest in everyone.”
Cheryl Brown, a Grog bartender for nine years, said, “He was more than a good boss. He was like a friend or a member of the family. He would always say hello. He would ask about my kids by name, Esther and Joel.”
Nichelmann's death was a shock to employees and the customers who knew him. About two weeks ago, he expressed concern about fatigue and shoulder pain, went to a local hospital and then transferred to Boston for medical care.
“This has been difficult,” said Patrick O’Neill, a chef at The Grog. “Bill and I have both have been with the Grog for about 20 years. He was here regularly for 20 years until suddenly he was sick. He and Richard propelled The Grog for 50 years. This is hard for the whole staff.”
Bill Nichelmann was born in San Francisco, and was the son of Karen Anderson of El Dorado Hills, California, and William Nichelmann, of Citrus Heights, California.
In addition to his parents, he leaves his wife, Nicole Nichelmann, of Byfield, and four siblings: Brian Nichelmann of Carmichael, Calif.; Brad Nichelmann of Sacramento; Lindsey Harn, of San Luis Obisbo, Calif.; and Kari Harn, of Sacramento.
There are no funeral arrangements at this time.
Family members said a celebration of life will be held at the Grog this fall.