50 years ago this coming Friday, a gutsy 19-year-old hung a hand-painted sign above the door of his first restaurant. At the urging of his boss, Tommy Fello took over the 7-seat soda fountain on Coventry Road where he was working and changed the name to Tommy’s. If ever there was a story about being in the right place at the right time, it is this one.
So as I understand the backstory, it was your former boss who turned you on to Middle Eastern food.
I had never tasted pita bread before; I didn’t even know what it was. If it wasn’t for the last guy I worked for, Fawze Saide, who would bring his lunch in, I wouldn’t even know what it was.
Tommy's began selling foods like hummus, baba ganoush and falafel. This was 1972, before Cleveland had Nate’s Deli, before we had Aladdin’s. Did people think you were crazy?
Just about that time all the hippies were starting to come down and they wanted more vegetarian food, the yogurt milkshakes… and we accommodated them.
Has the menu changed over these past 50 years?
Basically, we’ve had the same menu since 1972. Some of the things we’ve added over the years are tempeh, seitan, vegan cheeses and gluten-free stuff — as trends have changed and the desires of the customer have changed. You have to adapt just like any place.
Tommy's menu is one-of-a-kind for a lot of reasons, but primarily because most of the items are named after real people.
For me, I lucked out because there are so many places to choose and eat at and spend your dollars, but unfortunately for them and fortunately for me, if you want a Spiked Hummus, there’s only one place you can come in and get it.
You set up shop on Coventry Road. Would you still be here today if you had opened elsewhere, do you think?
This neighborhood adopted me. They knew I was a moron trying to do a restaurant who had no skills at all. They supported me through, what, three different fires that I was located next to or involved in. That’s why I love this neighborhood so much, because they have helped me stay in business over these years. It’s a mutual respect we have for each other.
Tommy's survived three fires, 9/11, the Great Recession. How does Covid compare?
These last two years have been the biggest challenge for me. Before Covid, we were 95-percent dine-in and 5-percent take-out. We switched to totally 100-percent take-out and that’s a whole different world. We really tortured some customers for a while trying to get it right, but they stuck with me and the people who work here, god bless them.
Were there days when you thought you wouldn’t make it?
We almost closed because we didn’t have enough volume. The City of Cleveland Heights let me and and our block take over three parking spaces and do curbside pick-up. If we didn’t have curbside pick-up, we would be out of business today.
Restaurants are not out of the woods yet. In fact, it seems just as challenging to survive today as it did two years ago. Does the average customer understand how hard it is, do you think?
What people don’t really understand is that it’s all about percentages. In this type of restaurant, if I sell a dollar’s worth of food, you’re lucky if you make four or five cents on it. With the cost of goods going up and the cost of labor going up, what is the percentage that decreases: the bottom line. You can only raise prices so much. You can’t cut quality, we don’t want to do that. We can’t cut size, you don’t want to cut the pita bread in half and serve half a sandwich. And they don’t see the $5,000 per month electric bills, the $2,000 a month gas bills…
Knowing what you know now, if the same opportunity came up today, would you take it?
If I knew it would be so hard to find people to help me here, and if I knew how challenging it was... Look, I love what I do. I wouldn’t be able to do it for 50 years if I didn’t love it. I love the people, I love the interaction, I love the people I work with, but these last two years, if I was going to open a restaurant during these times, I probably would not do it because it’s just too hard.
You're 69 years old. You clocked in at 5 a.m. today. Are you ever going to retire
People keep asking me, ‘When are you going to retire?’ I guess I’ll retire when I don’t like doing it anymore or I’m unable to do it anymore because I think movement and doing the stuff you love keeps you young. It’s a challenge and I’m proud of it.
If and when the time does come for you to hang up the apron, what's the succession plan?
My first plan, if you’ve ever seen “Weekend at Bernie’s,” they’re just going to prop me up in the front window and I'll keep waving at people. But if not that, there are people in my family and also people who have worked here for a long time that will help take it over, so I'm not worried about it shutting down. I’m more worried about making it through these next few years. It’s a difficult time and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.
1824 Coventry Road