Thank you, from the bottom of Tommy's heart

Tommy's has been offering in-person dining on the patio at the now-closed Panini's.

This has taken longer to write than I intended, mostly because it is hard to put into words the feelings of gratitude I have experienced over the last several months.

Beginning on March 16, and through May 3, Tommy's shut its doors for the longest period ever since our 1972 opening. While we were closed, loyal customers purchased huge amounts of gift cards, without knowing when we would re-open and they could redeem them. This gesture was the first of countless, incredible displays of love and kindness. You showed up to support us when there were so many unknowns. This gesture was such a light in a really dark and scary time.

On May 4 we opened for curbside service only. We had limited staff because many were understandably concerned about returning to work during a global pandemic. Staff that did come back worked in areas with which they were unfamiliar, but they adapted and learned without hesitation. Some of them have been working with me for over 20 years, doing the same jobs, and had to learn new positions. They did this with so much eagerness and patience. To those who came back even though you were worried for your health and well-being, I know you did this to support your co-workers, my family and me, and for that I will never be able to say thank you enough. Our team is full of special people. You are the best of the best, and I am a lucky man to have you as my Tommy's family.

Throughout my nearly 50 years of being in business, I have had the good fortune of having the “Coventry Village Community" (though many are now all around the world) take me under its wings and provide generous support.

That was undeniable on May 4. You showed up and supported us, not only by ordering food, but by being so patient and generous with our Tommy's family while we worked out the kinks of "Operation Tommy's Curbside." We were short-staffed, and went from 10 percent takeout to 100 percent. There was a definite learning curve, but not one employee, and very few customers, complained. Our Tommy's family was happy to be back at work, making the food and shakes that so many missed, and our customers were happy to be supporting us, learning curve and all.

The city of Cleveland Heights and the police department also stepped up for us, graciously allowing us to use five meters in front of the restaurant for curbside.

Our volume of business throughout May was promising. However, as the weather became nicer, with more restaurant patios opening each day, we saw our sales start to diminish and were faced with difficult decisions on what to do. We thought long and hard about opening for dine-in—in fact, we put together a survey asking our customers for help in deciding. The survey demonstrated that over 75 percent of our customer base did not feel safe dining inside. By June, COVID cases were spiking in Cuyahoga County. At that point, it just didn't feel right to open for dine-in, but cash flow was not sufficient to maintain a crew and keep Tommy's afloat.

Not only was business slow, but the cost of goods was significantly higher due to COVID. Weighing my options, it became clear to me that I would have to close my nearly 50-year-old business until it made sense—from a business and a safety standpoint—to open again.

With the kind of hope I start with every Sunday during Browns season (probably too much), I called the owner of the Panini's building, Debra Krenzler, to explain our situation and see if there was any chance of renting its patio. She said she would look into what was going on with the patio, talk to Mike Mercer, the owner of Panini's, and let me know.

In the meantime, we had scheduled a late-June staff meeting to discuss our options. I had planned to tell the employees that we were going to close on July 6, assist them in filing for unemployment, and try to wait out the storm. By some miracle, just 20 minutes before that meeting, I got a call from Debra saying we could rent the patio. That meeting turned from likely being the saddest one that I ever would have led, to one filled with happiness and excitement.

Again, our Coventry Village community and Tommy's family stepped up. Debra Krenzler, Eric Synenberg (her son, and the Panini’s building’s co-owner) and Mike Mercer helped me come up with our crazy, out-of-the-box plan on using the patio. The city of Cleveland Heights kindly fast-tracked the permits I needed. My wife, daughters, brother, son-in-law, sister-in-law and some longtime employees spent countless hours in the heat getting the patio aesthetically ready. We had to figure out how to transport food from our kitchen across the street in a way that was safe and preserved the Tommy's quality. In a truly team effort, we were able to open the patio on July 13.

Because nothing in 2020 has proven to be easy, the volume of business coming from patio dining was not what I hoped for, and curbside was still what was keeping us afloat, even with diminished volume there as well.

Then Channel 3, Channel 5, Spectrum, and Hillcrest Foods Buy Local did stories on our restaurant and the patio. In interviews, I explained what the pandemic has done to business, and how close we had come to closing until it was safe for my employees and customers to dine-in again.

In almost 50 years of business, I have had to overcome many hard times and obstacles, from fires to economic recession, but nothing has been as challenging as this pandemic.

Friends like Steve Presser and David Budin, among others, posted touching stories on Facebook in support of Tommy's and our employees. Again, I experienced firsthand what it's like to have people reach out to help when you're at a hard spot in your life. Steve and David sparked a huge wave of love for Tommy's and all small businesses in Coventry Village, and I am humbled by everything I have witnessed and received—monetary donations and homemade masks, baked goods, gift cards bought in bulk, and people vowing to order curbside, to keep me in business.

Teenagers dropped off $5 bills that they wanted handed to me personally so they could help. People purchased large quantities of box lunches to donate to hospital staff, front-line workers, and the city of Cleveland Heights Service Department—and they did not want any recognition.

A GoFundMe started by Nicole Glatz raised thousands of dollars. In my heart I didn't feel I deserved it, because I know there are many who are struggling more than me. I spoke with her and she brilliantly suggested we give it to my employees for the slow months. We decided to divide it amongst the employees and donate additional funds to Heights Senior Center, as it also is struggling now.

I wish I could describe all the amazing acts of kindness I have experienced during this crazy and uncertain time, but there are far too many to list here. It gave me such hope and showed me that we are all in this together. I want to say thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to my family, my employees, Coventry Village, Cleveland Heights, and my loyal customers. You will never know what your love and support has meant to me!

Coventry is a special place and there is nowhere I would rather be. Let’s keep this momentum going by continuing to support the backbone of our economy—small businesses—during what are sure to be tough winter months. While we are not through this life-altering time, and we still have a tough road ahead, you all have demonstrated to me that we can come out of it better than we were before. If we all continue to shop small businesses, I know we can make a difference; I have seen it firsthand! Thank you again, stay safe, and I love you.

Tommy Fello

Tommy Fello is the owner of Tommy's restaurant.

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Volume 13, Issue 10, Posted 10:42 AM, 10.01.2020