With a long legacy in Peoria—from marine to councilman to restaurateur—Bruce Brown has worked hard on the road to success.
Bruce Brown is a pretty well-known guy in town, since he was a city councilman and once ran for mayor. He seemed to be a natural for local politics, majoring in political science and history at Bradley University. Born in Peoria, Illinois on February 2, 1948, he was the seventh child in a family of four brothers and two sisters. At Woodruff High School, he was an active kid in the Class of 1966, working on the stage crew and competing in speech and on the debate team. During his college days, he worked a lot of different jobs—from janitor at a dental office to hard laborer for a local construction company.
A Way of Life
But in December of 1969, Bruce’s draft number came up, and he headed off to serve his country. The United States Marines rarely went to the draft for their men, yet he soon found himself in the Marines and on his way to basic training in California. After training, he ended up as a military policeman in Southern California. Eventually, he went with the Third Marine Division as a Marine Corps photographer in Japan and Okinawa until his honorable discharge in November of 1971.
“My love for photography is with me to this day, and I am rarely separated from my camera,” says Bruce. “It is more than a hobby; it’s a way of life for me. I take early-morning trips all around the area, looking for something interesting to photograph—a face that intrigues me or the sun that hits an object just right. It is an essential part of my life.”
Bruce married when he was 29 and has one daughter, an accomplished writer. Aryn Kyle, author of The God of Animals, currently lives in New York City.
He had always had an eye on the political aspects of Peoria, and in December 1971, Bruce announced his candidacy for councilman of the third district. “‘Urban renewal’ was going on, and I thought that since I lived in that area for 13 years, I could bring a more conscientious and positive attitude to this ambitious project,” he explains. Bruce went on to win that election and remained a successful councilman until 1981, later running for mayor against Richard Carver.
The Big Adventure
In 1981, Bruce met Lisa Mancuso, the love of his life, and the couple married in 1996. Together, they chased another long-time dream.
“My mother was Italian, and the aroma from her cooking in the kitchen stuck with me all my life, as well as her love for Italian food,” he recalls. One day, while walking past an empty building in Peoria Heights, he had an idea. Why not start a restaurant?
In 1982, he and Lisa approached Jefferson Bank about buying the space—the old Peoria Color Lab building at 4315 North Voss. “The price was way over our heads, but the following year, we agreed to take it for $50,000, and that is how it all began,” he explains.
Paparazzi is located in what locals like to call a “secret place,” and it is pretty difficult to find unless you know the area. But find it they do, and today, the restaurant is hardly a secret. “We are into our 31st year,” Bruce says, “and we are thankful to so many people for our success, and of course [to] the wonderful administrative people that made Peoria Heights more than just a business home to us.”
The building had numerous maintenance problems when Bruce and Lisa first took it over, but they set to work. That was about the time Bruce realized that starting a business in Peoria Heights was beginning to look like a smart move. “I have so many people… to thank for the successful opening of Paparazzi,” he says, noting the advice and encouragement he received from Lisa, his brothers and mother, and from George Pasquel, founder of the George Pasquel Company in Peoria’s Warehouse District.
With the help of Bruce’s brother, a chef was hired the first year of business, but after a year, he moved on. “My brother suggested that I be the chef,” he recalls. “I really had no experience to speak of, but my folks had confidence I could do the job, so I accepted the challenge. Of course, without Lisa I doubt things would have turned out the way they did. We turned in many 12- and 14-hour days, and believe me, you have to have a good support staff to get the job done.”
Quite a Ride
Over the years, Bruce and Lisa have worked side by side to keep the restaurant up to high standards, and make and retain loyal customers. The couple has also worked with numerous nonprofit organizations around the area, sponsoring fundraising dinners at the restaurant.
“Lisa and I would hear of an effort to raise money for a Civil War monument at Springdale Cemetery, or an attempt to upgrade Northmoor Observatory… [or] members of the historical G.A.R Hall needing help,” he explains. Over the years, they’ve raised more than $350,000 for worthy causes in the Peoria area.
“We hope to be able to continue that support as we move into our next decade,” says Bruce. “It has been quite a ride in a business that has a very high failure rate. We owe our success to our patrons, friends, family and a hell of a lot of hard work.” iBi
Norm V. Kelly is a Peoria historian, true-crime writer and author of 12 books. Contact him at email@example.com.