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Epiphany draws Harris to pizza

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Todd Mizener

Wayne Rushing, a pizza maker and manager of Harris Pizza No. 1 in Rock Island, twirls the dough for a pizza. Len Harris opened a nightclub in Rock Island after the war. When television crippled the nightclub business, he opened a pizzeria and never looked back.

ROCK ISLAND -- The dapper guy always dressed in a jacket and tie has a lot to get dressed up about. After nearly 40 years and five restaurants, Len Harris is of the Quad-Cities.

Len Harris' career began when he was in his mid-20s and opened The Buvette Nightclub, at 1819 2nd Ave. Rock Island, now RIBCO.

``I opened it up right after the war,'' he said. ``Second Avenue in downtown Rock Island was really alive then. There were 10 to 15 nightclubs between 17th and 20th streets that each had really good entertainment. A glass of beer was a quarter then, and whiskey was 50 cents.''

Mr. Harris ran the Buvette for 10 years until television hit the area in the mid-1950s. ``Television killed the nightclub business,'' he said. ``People could watch good entertainment on TV and didn't need to go out for it anymore.''

Mr. Harris moved up the hill in 1955 and opened a package liquor store and bar he called Harris Liquor. at 3903 14th Ave.

``There's two things you need to be a success in the liquor business,'' he said. ``One was a bankroll, and the other was storage space. You need to buy liquor in large quantities to make any money at it.''

After five years, he decided it was time to diversify.

``It was about Thanksgiving in 1959 and I was working with a guy named Murphy,'' Mr. Harris recalled. ``I asked him how his friend Mike Frow was doing. Murphy told me Frow was putting in a pizza place where 9th and 11th streets came together.

``I thought to myself, `That's it!' and I called my wife, Mary, to tell her I was going to sell pizza. She just laughed at me.''

The last laugh belonged to Mr. Harris. The Saturday after that Thanksgiving, he and Mary drove to Chicago to buy a pizza oven. By March, 1960, Harris Pizza was ready to debut in the Quad-Cities.

``Up to that time, only Tony Maniscalco had pizza in the whole area,'' Mr. Harris said. ``His place, called The Paddock, was down where the Yankee Clipper is now, and you can still see the pass-through window on the 16th Street side of the building.

``Tony was a big help to me getting started. I didn't know a thing about making pizza or how to set up a kitchen. But I drew up the plans for the entire thing and built it myself,'' he said.

By February 1969, what now is Harris No. 3 opened on West 3rd Street, Davenport, and again the kitchen plans were drawn and built by Len Harris. Harris No. 2 opened down the block from the original in 1976. ``The Davenport Locust Street restaurant opened in 1983 and the Bettendorf store, Harris No. 5, opened in 1996,'' he said.

The last Harris to open in the area was under the direction of Len and Mary's daughter and son-in-law, Kathy and Greg Mosley, who now run the entire operation.

``The equipment we have today is so much different from the early days,'' Mr. Harris said. ``The pizza ovens are so much better, and we have a meat grinder with a 30-horsepower motor that shreds 60 pounds of cheese in about a minute.''

The secret to his longevity in a tough business is quality, Mr. Harris said. ``I always made sure our pizzas were made with the best quality products money could buy. I've also always been blessed with having good help. When I started out, I didn't know anything about the pizza business, but I hired good cooks, who in turn, trained another generation of cooks, and it goes on from there.''

Mr. Harris said restaurant trends have changed greatly in the 40 years he's been in the business. ``People are eating earlier in the evening. We used to stay open until 1 a.m., but now we close up at 11 p.m. Everyone goes home today to watch TV. The nicer restaurants, like Ben's and the Plantation, used to have two and three seatings a night. Today, there's only one seating. People's habits are so casual now. No one wants to dress up and make an occasion of dining out.''

-- By Lisa Mohr (February 2, 1998)

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