Decelleses sell Coachmen's Lodge

Decelleses sell Coachmen's Lodge

Norman and Michele Decelles, above, have sold the Coachmen's Lodge in Bellingham after 45 years in business. The new owners, the Nicolos family of Attleboro, have extensive experience in the restaurant business, are keeping the staff, and are already renovating the rear patio with beautiful stonework, an area which suffered a fire last year. (Valley Breeze Photos by Tom Ward)
New owners updating patio; Michele remains to help brides

BELLINGHAM - Norman Decelles was 29 years old when he came upon the property that would turn out to be his and his family's life work. Today, we know it as the Coachmen's Lodge, 273 Wrentham Road.

Back then, Decelles knew he wanted to be in the restaurant business. He was a first cousin to the Taverniers who owned and operated the well-known Bocce Club restaurant in Woonsocket and, in between part-time work as a truck driver, he worked at the Bocce. He also owned his own little eatery on Mendon Road in Woonsocket for a while, now known as Cooky's Bar & Grill, but Decelles wanted a bigger place.

He has owned the Coachmen's for 45 years, but on Tuesday, April 1, he and his wife, Michele, left it behind. They sold the business - the building and everything in it, the name and even the telephone number - for an undisclosed sum to an Attleboro, Mass., restaurateur, Vassilios Nicolos. "He made us a offer we could not refuse," is all that Decelles would say about the purchase price. "We never had it for sale." Rather, Nicolos came out of the blue with his undeniable offer to buy it.

When Decelles first came upon it around 1969, the site of the Coachmen's was occupied by the Bellingham Amusement Club, a tiny two-room place that didn't even have a full liquor license. He went right to work, in the kitchen or wherever he was needed, and in time, as the years passed, the Coachmen's Lodge became a local landmark.

Although the building looks small in front from the outside, the Coachmen's Lodge covers two floors, with dining rooms that seat a total of 190 people upstairs and banquet rooms downstairs for 240 patrons. The business has become known for its fresh, local food including homemade bread, fresh mozzarella cheese and homemade desserts.

From the authentic Victorian sofa that greets visitors in the front foyer to the fire flaring in the big dining room upstairs, the Coachmen's Lodge is a warm, homey place, a perfect spot for family gatherings. Indeed, the Decelles speak fondly of the many weddings, anniversaries and holiday parties they have hosted. "It takes years to get anniversary parties," Norman noted, explaining that such parties happen only years after the weddings that of course must come first.

With finely landscaped grounds that feature a pond, a gazebo and a decorative archway, the restaurant is a favorite place for weddings. Michele said about 110 weddings are held at the restaurant every year, including the ceremony as well as the reception dinner. It will be good news to those who have booked a wedding there to know that Michele will stay on to manage the nuptial events until the end of the year. "I've been helping them out," she says modestly of the new owners.

Michele, like her husband, started in the restaurant business as a youngster when she was a "bus girl" at the Bocce Club. She and Norman reminsced fondly of the family-style chicken dinners, for which northern Rhode Island is famous, that began at the Bocce and are now a staple at dozens of eateries around the state.

What Norman and Michele say they will miss most when they leave the restaurant business behind are their customers. "They're like family," Michele says. What they won't miss are the long working hours required of any restaurant owner. "We work hard," Michele says. "We work a lot of hours." Norman did the buying for the business, while Michele ran the office. The two say the secret to their success, in fact, is simply "hard work."

A fire in July that destroyed a small part of the business - an outdoor patio and bar at the rear of the building - seemed like a disaster at the time, but it's turned out to be a blessing of sorts. The fire cleared the way for the new owner and a crew of workmen to rebuild the outdoor patio and bar, a "cosmetic" project that should be done by June 1, Nicolos said.

"We have a lot of confidence in the new owners," Norman said. "If you could see the amount of money they're spending, they're not fooling around." Neither the Decelles nor Nicolos would specify what that amount is, but reports say it is more than six figures.

Nicolos and his family already own Briggs Corner Pizza on Oak Hill Avenue in Attleboro and the Mediterranean Grill on Route 1 in South Attleboro. A native of Greece who came to this country when he was 24, Nicolos says he was looking to buy a restaurant with banquet facilities and he fell in love with the Coachmen's Lodge as soon as he saw it.

"I love the grounds. I love the tavern. I felt this was something different than what I was doing," Nicolos told The Valley Breeze. "I love the pond, I love the whole atmosphere and I felt it's a great challenge. I love this business, I love the challenge."

Nicolos is keeping all 40 members of the Coachmen's current staff, including Executive Chef Gianfranco Campanella. "We have some bartenders who have been here 29, 30 years," Michele noted. Nicolos spoke of expanding the menu and attracting more young people to the restaurant. "We want to bring everybody here," Nicolos said. "Our goal is to make this place a destination. We love what we're doing here and it has been a great experience to work with Norman and Michele."

The Nicolos family has been in the restaurant business since 1976 and Nicolos' wife, Janet, and his oldest son, 27-year-old Dimitri, will play active roles in the new business, Nicolos said. He also has two other sons, Andreas' and Alexandros, who are college students.

Norman Decelles is the father of two daughters, Lisa and Christine. He and Michele are the parents of seven-year-old Norman, a student at Mercymount Country Day School in Cumberland. Former Cumberland residents, the Decelles now live in Wrentham and own a home in Bartlett, N.H., in the White Mountains. It is there, in addition to a quick trip to Disney World, where they expect to spend a considerable amount of their time in retirement.

Coachmen's Lodge Executive Chef Gianfranco Campanella, seen here preparing bread for the day, is remaining along with his kitchen staff. The restaurant was sold Tuesday. (Valley Breeze Photo by Tom Ward)