The Brown Bag


Harlean Swing got into the restaurant business in the 1970's after her husband Jack, who was then the head of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois, knocked down a few walls in a new building he owned in Monticello, Illinois and declared she was going to "open a deli."  Harlean had recently "come by some money" and had been planning to take it easy after a career as a fashion buyer in Los Angeles.  But she tackled Jack's 'suggestion' with her characteristic drive, sense of humor and sharp tongue.

With Jack in charge of building the deli, Harlean focused on the menu.
"It's all my recipes from home," Swing says. "And I insisted early on on using only real food -- none of this highly processed garbage and fake meats and cheeses. We slice everything fresh here."
When the Brown Bag opened in 1972, it was a welcome oddity in a small town built on more traditional restaurants.  Swing, who is from Los Angeles and of Jewish descent, introduced specials like bagels and matzo ball soup to the locals.  "I went through culture shock, for sure."
But business grew steadily,  and with the addition of a pie and cake shop by local pastry chef Inge Parker, the Brown Bag became the lunch destination for Monticello and surrounding communities.
Swing became known as much for her direct, no nonsense manner with an ever-rotating cast of employees and customers as she was for her food.
"Oh, I was horrible," Swing recounts.  "I never said please.  I yelled at my staff and some of them would end up in the parking lot crying. And I would go out and say, 'get back in there! I'm the best boss you'll ever have because I'm not going to fire you when you screw up!'"

The "Bag's" (as it's known to locals) frenetic atmosphere, crowded kitchen and ever-expanding menu became part of  the lore early on.
Swing's daughter, Leslie Glickman, grew up at the Brown Bag under her mother's firm tutelage and embraced Harlean's unique personality. Leslie and her older brother Michael never planned to take the business over from their mother, but it was always in the back of Leslie's mind.
"I went to Eastern Illinois University and had planned to be a psychologist, but life had other plans," Glickman says.
When Jack Swing died in 2014, Glickman found herself increasingly managing the day to day operations of The Brown Bag, with Harlean's approval.  But it wasn't easy.
"When mom retired, it took five different people to do what mom did. And I made a couple significant mistakes," Glickman says.
But Harlean was there every step of the way.  Mother and daughter (now a co-owner) developed an open-door consultation policy.
"It's impossible to give someone 40 years of your experience," Swing explains. "So I let her develop her own way of managing things and if she needs some advice, I'm always there to tell her what's worked and what hasn't in years past."

Glickman is making renovations a top priority as she moves the deli into its next phase.  She has added modern restrooms and a renovated dining area featuring a large wall mural by a local artist.
"This building is very old and has 'interesting' architecture," she says with a hint of sarcasm. "I'm aiming to get rid of our upstairs seating, completely update the kitchen and storage area and expand the outdoor seating into a beautiful place for customers to enjoy their experience here."

What won't change is the location. Swing, who just celebrated her 84th birthday, and Glickman have considered expanding to new locations, but for now, they're staying put.
"This place is the Brown Bag, " Glickman says.
"It might seem like chaos in here, but we get it done."