A Rhode Island success story of three generations of emigrants from three Scandinavian countries
Wending my way deeper into the woods of rural Charlestown, Rhode Island, I came upon chartered buses parked with 300 patrons filling the restaurant with the finest, quality, gourmet foods available. It was my introduction to the Nordic Lodge, originated, developed and now successfully managed by three generations of Persson emigrants from three different Scandinavian countries.
In the late 1920s when the Depression struck Scandinavia, two immigrants made the decision to head west to start a new life in "the land of opportunity." Karl O. Persson, a skilled Swedish carpenter, and his bride Irma, from Denmark, entered Ellis Island and established themselves in Brooklyn, New York.ADVERTISEMENT
When their son Dick was 10 years old the family returned to Sweden for 10 years so Dick could become oriented to Swedish ways. They all returned to the U.S. when the Swedish economy worsened.
Dick married a Norwegian immigrant and U.S. citizen, Gudny (Goody). Mother Goody was a quiet, loyal, supportive and hard working stand-by-your-man Norwegian, frugal and nurturing. Both Swedish and Norwegian languages were spoken in their home. Dick’s livelihood was as a carpenter and made steel partitions.
A man with discipline, he was a dedicated, old school U.S. Marine, a force to be reckoned with, and a strong presence in their lives. These characteristics undoubtedly contributed to their success. Dick died in 1996 but lived to see the success of their years of struggle.
Putting down roots
In 1963, with their two children and a third one on the way, Dick and Goody decided to leave the city life for rural living. They struggled to purchase a 28-acre vacation spot in rural Charlestown, Rhode Island, with small cottages, a dining hall and summer recreation beside a lovely, placid lake. Serving three meals a day, there was swimming, boating, dancing, smoking of eels, and volleyball. A money pit, inaccessible in winter and only used in the summer, they found guests were not particularly attracted to it. With their shared Scandinavian heritage, and given the Nordic influences seen in the rustic, wooded, natural setting along the lake, the Perssons named it Nordic Lodge. Having little publicity, located deep in the woods and only summer visitors, though, they were barely afloat.
Soon the lodge became a year round restaurant, but it took seven years to obtain a liquor license. Meanwhile, in 1980, Custy’s, a successful local all-you-can-eat restaurant, burned down. Seeing the potential, the Perssons added a new addition in the same style as Custy’s, and the restaurant took off as part of the Nordic Lodge. Soon, with research into quality dining, diverse menus and local fresh food, they were thriving.
With lots of planning, struggling, working long hours, strong work ethics, total family trust and cooperation, the three siblings Steve Persson, Nancy Persson Log and Lisa Persson Brown, along with their dedicated spouses, Lorna, John and Bryan, finally made it. They have arrived! Now, all eight children of the three owners and all their families are working in the Nordic Lodge, contributing new ideas and original menus. Total staff is about 65 people.
After a humble beginning and 35 years, the restaurant has become one of the top 10 "belly-busting buffets" in the world according to the Smarter Traveler food editor Caroline Morse, and acknowledged by Huffington Post in November 2014. It was featured several times this year on the Travel Channel. Additionally, the establishment owners and staff were interviewed and video taped by the Phantom Buffet which had anonymously visited and reviewed the establishment. Today, it can be viewed on You Tube Food Channel Buffet advertised as Buffet Paradise.
Building a legacy
Co-owner Steve Persson, a bearded, rugged outdoorsman (who, some say, looks like a Viking) considers himself to be positively connected to the Swedish ways. At age 19, after visiting family in Sweden and Norway, he worked for a year in Sweden which gave him some Swedish language skills. He and family still visit both countries.
Whenever my own Swedish family visits I take them to see Steve who loves to communicate with "homeland" folks. Like most other immigrants that I have interviewed, Steve has not personally been discriminated against because of immigrant roots. He is quite proud of his diverse, Scandinavian heritage.
Nordic Lodge is surely an unusual restaurant at which to dine. No fancy white tablecloths and candle light, just fun and rustic wilderness décor including trophies of the Perssons' hunting adventures in New England and Canada. There are bears, turkeys, bison, musk ox, mountain lion and coyote all hunted by Steve, his dad Dick and son Pelle. Such unique restaurant ambiance!
Near the lodge is a large and lovely fountain, a great place for photos. At the entrance we are greeted by a huge, two-story-tall carved wood Viking. Outside in the 90 wooded acres are a bucolic lake, fireside pit for outdoor cooking, hammocks and lounge chairs along the grassy shore. Keeping an eye on me was Thor the fjeldic, Norwegian draft horse and two alpacas named Grover and Pedro, grazing near their bright red barn. A large sauna is situated right next to the water’s edge as is a gazebo for live musicians — who played while we were there with drinks and appetizers outside.
Luring guests to this restaurant located in the middle of nowhere isn't difficult, when it's known for remarkable feasts, a plethora of fresh seafood, fished right from local waters. Rhode Island, the "Ocean State" is well named. Large, fresh Rhode Island lobsters boiled in seawater are most popular. On any given day, Steve can order 1,000 to 3,000 pounds of lobsters depending on the number of expected patrons. Seating is available for 300 people. Next most popular items are Alaskan crabs, mussels, scallops, shrimp, oysters, chowders, as well Narragansett Bay little necks (clams).
In addition, there are fresh local veggies, a fresh salad bar, a full service bar and a dessert buffet. There are cakes baked on the premises, pies, cannolis, cupcakes, a Haagen Dazs ice cream bar with the fixens as well as imported Belgian chocolate. I counted at least 30 desserts.
Basically it is an all-you-can-eat, two hour limit, casual dress (great after the beach), luxury dinner, open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from April to December. Reservations are required only if there are 20 guests or more. It is an exciting place for special event parties.
With such a large staff, including all the Persson family, the waitstaff is also known to be really helpful, friendly and efficient. Two generations have passed on but they left a wonderful legacy of strong work ethics, confidence and pride in a highly successful, world renowned restaurant, The Nordic Lodge. For more information visit: www.nordiclodge.com
Interview of Steve Persson and written by Dr. Lorraine Colson Bloomquist, Prof. Emerita, Dept. Kinesiology, University of Rhode Island. Lorraine is a Board member of Quahog Vasa Lodge, RI and Board member of the Rhode Island Swedish Heritage Association.