PEPPERELL — A Main Street institution, The Pepperell Spa, came under new ownership on June 24 when Paul Bozicas sold it to Mike Leary.
That morning the Spa was packed with people who came to see Paul and his wife, Jerri. When they entered the restaurant, the pair was greeted by customers cheering and clapping. Paul is in poor health. He has been battling cancer after being diagnosed about six months ago.
His Spa is the oldest business in the town and needs little introduction. It has been on Main Street and in the Bozicas Family since 1941, when Stephen and Lula Bozicas, Paul’s parents, opened it. Stephen worked at a similar restaurant called the Ayer Spa before breaking off to start on his own in Pepperell. Pepperell’s Spa has little to do with hot springs, but it is a kind of resort — certainly a place of comfort for all who enter.
According to its new owner, it isn’t going anywhere. Leary has been raising a family in Pepperell for seven years and is happy to keep the Spa going.
“I want to spend more time with my family, so I am trying to start up closer to home,” he says. Leary worked with his brother and sister at a pizza and seafood place called Flint’s Corner in Tyngsboro for 25 years. He now lives in Pepperell with his wife, Amy, and sons, Owen and Ian. He and Amy are expecting their third child this summer.
“Owning the place hasn’t really sunk in yet, but I’m looking forward to something different and exciting,” he says.
The Spa is staying put, but Leary plans to make a few changes. For starters, the name will be changed to the Pepperell Spa Cafe. Leary is also planning to add lunch items to the menu such as sandwiches and wraps to create better takeout options. Also, a bathroom will have to be installed upstairs.
“We have to do the bathroom,” he says, adding that the restaurant will be closed for about a week during construction.
“But the other changes are to attract new customers.”
Leary says that Paul has been extremely helpful and allowed Leary to come in and observe to get a feel for the diner-style setup and service.
“Mike will do alright, he’s going to get the place a little more up-to-date,” Paul said.
“I feel very comfortable, Paul’s been a great help,” said Leary.
The restaurant’s longevity has made it a Main Street institution, serving both excellent food and as a gathering place for many Pepperellites. Those regulars, many of whom were present that morning, give the Spa its aura: a welcoming hole-in-the-wall with a devoted following and a lot to offer, but even more to remember.
“It’s a focal point, a gathering place, for the town,” says Frank Hartnett. Hartnett said he remembers political events, which Jerri would love, and Paul could care less about.
Paul has been working at the Spa since he was a boy. His brother, Costa, has been right beside him both there and as a community member, now the retired fire chief is one of the Spa’s elders.
“There’s a lot of history here, I came as a kid and I got to know older people,” he said.
“A lot of people’s grandparents first met here.”
Chappy Lorden has been a customer since 1943 when he used to come in with his father. He had his first jelly doughnut at the counter and, long after he stopped driving an oil truck for Lorden Oil, he still stops in as a regular.
“You always expected to see the Bozicases here,” he said.
Lorden told a story of the Spa’s early days, when it was open at night. Paul’s mother, Lula, would willingly serve him ice cream, thinking Mr. Lorden would come in pay. He rarely did.
“I’m going to pay Paul today,” he said, pulling out some change.
“Seventy-five cents should do it.” Lorden says he adjusted for inflation and added slight interest.
Many Friday-morning patrons were reminiscing and still ordering some of their favorite dishes. Spa Stew, Dollar Job, Hamburg Steak, and of course the coffee. To quote the Spa itself, a sign in front of the store reads “If coffee were a religion, the Spa would be its cathedral.” Other, older customers remember the Spa’s extensive selection of penny candy and cigarettes.
“They have the absolute best French toast,” said Chris Hayes, who has owned the Enchanted Florist on the same block as the Spa for 25 years.
“When we first got here, the Bozicases were some of the first people to welcome us to the area,” she said.
Hayes, like Jerri and Paul, is very involved in the Pepperell Business Association. In the past Jerri has served as president.
“Jerri is a force and Paul continues to be a great support,” Hayes said.
Other members of the PBA sat around the booth.
“I’ve been coming here and I usually am dressed the same, so now they have the coffee ready for me when I come in,” said Joe at the table.
“They are either getting more efficient or they want me out here in a hurry.”
Debby, also at the table, says she recently retired from North Middlesex Savings Bank.
“Paul likes chocolate and I keep some on my desk … he makes a beeline for the stuff,” she said.
The group also discussed the PBA duck race, which was originally Jerri’s idea. The Spa served as an integral part of the race’s organization; when it came to counting the ducks, the group would use the counter to line them up.
Another PBA member, Bob Fenn, has a special seat in the corner by the Spa’s large window overlooking the intersection of Main and Groton.
“I’ve been sitting here for 17 years and Paul’s been gracious to let me stay and work,” he says. Fenn works as a volunteer minister and counselor, often doing work one-on-one with clients or preparing papers at his table.
“Some places don’t want it, but a lot of people have benefited from chats in this corner,” he said, likening the Spa to a small town.
“It is a microcosm of the community of Pepperell,” Fenn said.
“You get more than what you pay for, the food is good, but people are happy to give back.”
Many of the customers do odd jobs and fix-ups for the Spa, in recent years, regular customers are quick to go out to the Bozicases’ car when it arrives to help bring in groceries and supplies for Paul and Jerri.
PBA President Dereck Ten Broeck gave Paul a picture of many of the regulars posing outside of his restaurant as a gift.
“Your friends all came down and we almost had to shut down Main Street, but this is a picture of a small sample of the people in the community,” Ten Broeck said.
He, among others, are regulars from the legendary Table No. 3. The long table, a spot long rumored to be where to find out what’s happening in town, was occupied as usual with people getting ready to start their day at work and the Spa’s unique blue coffee mugs.
“It’s definitely an institution,” said Greg at Table 3.
“Not mental,” added Andy, also at Table 3, sipping coffee.
“There are not many places like it.”
And as for Jerri and Paul, they’re one of kind, too.
“I want to thank the community for all the wonderful years,” they said.
“They’ve become our extended family.”