Celebrating 50 years of rocking the falafel on Coventry

A diehard group of supporters showed up on a bitter cold last Friday, Jan. 14 to surprise restauranteur Tommy Fello with a sidewalk gathering to celebrate his 50th year of operating his popular vegetarian friendly diner, Tommy’s on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights.

Even those who are not related to Fello spoke of him like he was a member of their family, recounting numerous occasions when he supported his Cleveland Heights community with food, when he advocated for local business needs at city hall, or rolled up his sleeves to help those in need on Coventry—a road lined with independent shops.

At a teenager in 1972, Fello took a gamble on himself that paid off. He was working in a soda shop on Coventry where he watched the owner bring a pita stuffed sandwich to work with him every day.

Fello was intrigued by the Middle Eastern fare his boss was eating, and saw the rising desire for vegetarian fare—fueled by hungry Hippies in the neighborhood.

Fello successfully pitched the owner on opening up a sandwich shop and hung a hand painted sign up that said “Tommy’s.” A half-century later, Fello and Tommy’s restaurant continue to set the pace for business traffic on Coventry—inspiring other businesses and bringing the entire street together as one.

Suzanne DeGaetano, owner of Mac’s Bacs Books next door to Tommy’s, was inspired by Fello to open her own shop.

“I was 22 years old and fresh out of college living in an apartment nearby,” recalls DeGaetano. “I came here every night for dinner because I didn’t really know how to cook. Tommy is really the heart and soul of the street. He’s a humble guy, a great collaborator. He’s about community. That’s why he’s gotten so much love.”

Fello created an atmosphere of giving and sharing, say DeGaetano and Grog Shop and B Side Liquor Lounge owner Kathy Blackman, which has helped them weather many a stormy economy over the years.

“He’s really generous,” says Blackman holding two (iconic) milkshakes purchased for her children. “He wouldn’t let me pay when I would ask [Fello to do catering for events at the Grog Shop], so I would have to bring cash whenever I asked [for catering]. He’s the greatest. I’m honored to be on the same street with him.”

Steve Presser, owner of Big Fun for many years on Coventry, admitted that he was at a rare loss for words in expressing the important role Fello played in his longevity as a business owner.

“He really took me under his wing,” Presser says. “Tommy’s greatest gift was in giving and training so many young people in their first job. Many people started working here as teenagers and that can be a difficult time. He truly is a prince of a fellow.”

Fello’s five daughters make up part of Tommy’s teen lunch counter corps—starting with Stephanie, who recalls getting a call from her father one day when the restaurant was short a dishwasher.

“I was 12 years old and me and a friend came in and rolled silverware [in napkins] sitting on a pickle barrel and also helped out washing dishes,” Stephanie recalls. “We loved it. It was exciting to be a part of.” Stephanie says her own daughters now help out at Tommy’s.

Stephanie eventually learned every aspect of the business, including her current role as bookkeeper. Her sister, Kelsey, a manager at Tommy’s, recalls celebrating the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays as a family in the restaurant—mixing the mashed potatoes in the giant mixer, instead of Tommy’s famous hummus. She notes that Fello’s brother and sister-in-law are also a big part of the restaurant’s success.

Tommy’s 50th year Celebration“We’ve had so many great people who’ve worked with us,” Stephanie says. “There’s a closeness with [the employees], and the customers are so devoted and [want to] make sure they know he’s loved.”

Like so many other small businesses, COVID-19 put a strain on the business that was similar to other hard times Tommy’s has ensured over the years—like in the early 1990s during the recession, when chain restaurants siphoned away foot traffic. This time, the lockdown and virus kept customers away.

Tommy's had always relied on dine-in customers—which accounted for 98% of the restaurant’s business—but that revenue disappeared overnight in 2020.

Tommy's customers realized that sentimentality wouldn’t be enough to get Fello through, Kelsey says, so customers rallied during the pandemic by leaving huge tips and ordering takeout.

Even the City of Cleveland Heights helped out—devoting three on-street parking spots in front of the restaurant for customers getting curbside pickup from an efficient masked team of employees—a move that Kelsey acknowledged as “a game changer.”

“The community cares and it is reciprocated,” she says. “It’s just a very good community.”

Lunch counter regular Neil Slobin is one of the devoted. He recalls how he had a sandwich—the NB—named after him (naming sandwiches and dishes after the regulars who ordered them is a Tommy’s trademark).

“I’d come in and sit at the counter and he’d say, ‘you want your sandwich?’ Slobin says of Fello. Slobin echoes sentiments that Coventry’s famous street festivals wouldn’t have been the same without the leadership of Fello. “He helped me set up a DJ [for a festival],” Slobin argues. “He knows every outlet on the street.”

Coventry Village resident Bob Brown adds, “He does good deeds all of the time,” recalling the time Fello somehow managed to ship a case of milkshakes to those in need in New England.

“There were times that I would eat there three times a day,” says long-time Coventry Village resident, Laura Dempsey. “My father was the manager at Cumberland Pool, and we would start many days at Tommy’s and then I would hang out at the pool all day.”

Self-proclaimed roving food reporter Tony Musachio says “I come here for the milkshakes. The mint shakes are to die for.”

By the end of the surprise party, Fello, standing in front of the store with his daughters and some of his grandchildren—all wearing Tommy’s hoodies—was able to compose himself and deliver his heartfelt thanks.

“There’s no place I’d rather be than Coventry,” he says. “Thanks so much for your support. That’s what I feel—the love.”

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at gcbl.org. He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.