Who’s Behind the Counter: Mary “Lucy” Branning at Lucy’s Paradise Café

Where serving food is about bringing the community together

Catonsville Patch:  How long have you been in business in Catonsville?

Mary Branning:  I opened six years ago in May, but there has been a restaurant here since the '40s.  Before Lucy’s, it was Manelli’s.

Patch:  Who’s Lucy?

Branning:  When I worked for a contractor, I would make a lot of mistakes, and he would look at me and say, “Lucy, you’ve got a lot of ‘splainin’ to do!” and it just sort of stuck.  A lot of people call me Lucy.

Patch:  What made you want to open a restaurant?

Branning:  I worked for McCormick’s for years, so I was on the industrial side of the food business, but I had always dreamed of having my own restaurant, and I was looking for a place.  One day George Brookhart called me and told me there was a listing in Paradise.  I got the money together, and I said, “This is it!” and I jumped off that cliff!

Patch:  Why did you choose Catonsville? 

Branning:  This is a mile from my house.  I was the past president of the Chamber of Commerce.  I know a lot of people in Catonsville and I have a personal commitment to this town.

Patch:  Was there much change when you took over the business?

Branning:  As soon as I began to think about buying the business, I was talking to Bernie and Rita Manelli, the former owners.  They told me everything about the business and after I opened, Bernie came in every morning for weeks to help show me the ropes, you know, all the little stuff that comes up.  He also wanted to introduce me to his customers to let people know that he was handing over the business to me.  That’s the kind of place this is.

Patch:  What do you like about being in Catonsville?

Branning:  I love the traditions of Catonsville.  I love our history, and I love keeping that alive.  Yes, the community changes and you hope for the better, but we still hold on to those traditions that keep us grounded, keep us caring about each other.

Patch:  What services do you do?

Branning:  We serve breakfast and lunch six days a week.  We have a big base of regulars.  We know most of our customers’ names.  People don’t have to order because we know what they want.  When people don’t come in, we worry about them. 

This is a really small space. What you see here is what you get.  We cook right out in the open.  The police who come in like that, they can see how we’re making the food.  The kids like it too; they sit at the counter and watch me make pancakes, and they ask for the Mickey Mouse ears.

Patch:  What’s a typical day like?

Branning:  I’m up at 4:15 and I arrive here by 5:15.  I get the grill hot and the fryer ready.  I slice everything for the omelets and get the soups going.  At 6:30 there are regulars waiting at the door.  We serve a lot of people on their way to work and a lot of people who are retired.

We serve breakfast until 11:30 and then switch over to lunch.  Around 2:00, we start cleaning up and we close at 3:00.  Then, I run to the bank, buy anything we’re running out of, go home, do some paperwork, eat dinner and crash.  I’m in bed by 9:00.

Patch:  What is your busiest day of the year?

Branning:  Saturday breakfast is our consistently busiest time, but hands down our busiest day is our cookie day.  On the Saturday before Christmas, I bake cookies as a gift to my customers and everyone comes in that day!

Patch:  Do you have a signature service or specialty thing you do?

Branning:  We offer daily specials and home-made soups.

We have the Egg-niter; that’s a great breakfast for only $4.99 Monday through Wednesday.  Our most popular breakfast item is the Western omelet.  For lunch, people love our turkey club and our BLT.  People rave about our bacon.

And we also have a lot of healthy choices like egg beaters and turkey sausage and whole wheat English muffins.  So people can still be careful about what they eat and eat here.

Patch:  What’s one of the hardest things about your work?

Branning:  Being on my feet for eleven hours a day, six days a week at 54 years old!

Patch:  What are you proud of?

Branning:  One of our customers had a relative who was serving in Iraq, and he told her how few of the soldiers received letters.  So we did a project:  Letters from Lucy’s.  While people were sitting, eating their breakfast or lunch, we provided them with paper and envelopes, and they wrote thank-you notes to the soldiers.  We did it for a year and people really got into it; they donated stamps and stationary.  One of the soldiers wrote back.  It felt good to bring people together and bring the community together and realize it’s bigger than just us.

Patch:  What’s your favorite thing about your work?

Branning:  I love to talk to people, and I love it that people connect here.  Many of our customers don’t know each other outside of here but they share their lives with each other.

Patch:  What are you looking forward to?

Branning:  A better economy.  Our prices have gone up only once in six years.  We’re trying to keep things reasonable for our customers, but this economy has been hard on everyone.

Patch:  What is one thing you think is needed in the business community?

Branning:  People should come to Paradise!  We have a lot of great businesses here and people need to know about us.  After the Short Line trail is finished, people will be able to ride their bikes down and get something to eat and shop.  There’s also plenty of parking down here, and there are no parking meters!


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