Tommy Fello: from soda jerk to acclaimed restauranteur

Tommy Fello. Photo by Jim Henke.

Back in 1966, when he was 14 years old, Tommy Fello began working as a soda jerk at the Ace Drug Store, which was located on Euclid Heights Boulevard near Coventry, where the Inn on Coventry is currently located. It would have been hard to predict that in just six years Fello would own the store, that he would turn it into a restaurant, and that some 47 years later, it would still exist as something of a landmark up the street on Coventry.

Fello grew up on Wilton Road in Cleveland Heights with three brothers and one sister. His father was a chemical engineer for Sohio, and his mother was a fine jeweler at Higbee’s in Severance Center and at Rudolph Deutsch Jewelry Store downtown on Euclid Avenue. Fello attended St. Ann School through eighth grade, attended ninth grade at Roosevelt Junior High School and graduated from Heights High. After high school, he studied computer programming at the Institute for Computer Management for one year. But it was his job at the drugstore that really captivated him.

In 1969, the owners of Ace sold it to a Lebanese gentleman named Fawze Saide and his wife. They changed the name to the Fine Arts Confectionary and began selling Lebanese sandwiches made of falafel, hummus and baba ghanoush. The store had a seven-seat soda fountain, where Fello had worked. In December 1971, the Saides decided to move back to Lebanon. Fello, who was then 19, bought the store on January 14, 1972. He paid $6,000 and renamed it Tommy’s.

Much of what people now associate with Tommy’s dates back to those early days. Take the milkshakes—acclaimed by almost everyone who’s had one, including staff from Rolling Stone magazine, who labeled them “best milkshakes east of the Mississippi.” He started making them back in the early 1970s. Like now, he made them using ice cream from Pierre’s, a local company.

There were, and still are, unusual names for the menu items, such as the IRS (a spinach pie with mushrooms and cheese), the EZ (a falafel sandwich with mushrooms, cheese and sesame sauce) or the Joy Salad (eggs, baba ghanoush and cheese). They are named after the customers who ordered the items on a regular basis. IRS is for Ira Robert Schwartz; the Joy salad is named after Joy Marshall, who is now a doctor in Cleveland; and the EZ is named after Ed Zinc, who was a local jeweler. “The customers would almost always order the same thing,” Fello said. “So it was easier for me to just put their name on it instead of describing the contents of the item.”

By the mid-70s, the drugstore portion of the business was losing customers due to the arrival of the Revco chain. Fello responded by focusing more on the food. “I took out some of the shelves and put in some tables,” he said. “So we had about seven tables and seven seats at the counter, and we could seat about 25 or 30 people.” In 1977, he lost the lease on the building, and the following spring, he relocated down the street to 1820 Coventry, where Mac’s Backs is now located.

By this time, Coventry had undergone some dramatic changes. It was no longer the ethnic enclave that it was when Fello first worked there. “In those early days, there was a beauty parlor, an antique store, a jewelry store, a fish market and so on,” he said. But by the 70s, it had become a hippie mecca, with more stores that were, as Fello describes them, “alternative.” He said the changes started around 1969, when Bill Jones opened a leather shop on the street. He made handmade sandals and, “worked like a dog,” Fello said. Jones would come into Tommy’s after a very long day of work and order what is now called the Health Salad. “It has olives, eggs, ham and cheese and other things that are not particularly considered healthy,” he said. “But Bill came in late, and he wanted a meal in a salad. And he called it a ‘healthy salad.’” Hence, its name.

Picking up on changes in the neighborhood, Fello expanded his menu. “More people were becoming vegetarians, so we added more vegetarian options,” he said. “We kept adding more things to the menu as people wanted more things.” To this day, one of the things Fello is most proud of is the variety on the menu. “I like to have something for everyone in the family,” he said. “So if someone wants a hamburger, they can get one. But the person with them might be a vegetarian, so they can get a vegetarian item. And now there are all of these allergies that people have. So someone may need a gluten-free item. Well, we have those, too. We’re sort of like Alice’s Restaurant—you can get anything you want!”

In November 1988, a fire destroyed the dining room at Tommy’s and took out a significant portion of the block. His kitchen was not damaged, so he kept it where it was, but he moved his dining room next door to 1824 Coventry. Initially, he shared that space with Coventry Cats and High Tide, Rock Bottom. Then, in 1992, he purchased the building and took over the entire space. From April of that year until April 1993, he did extensive remodeling on the restaurant, and for the past 20 years, it has remained pretty much the same.

Fello is a hard worker and works very long hours at his restaurant. The day I interviewed him, he said he arrived at the restaurant around 4:15 a.m. Most days, he said, he is there by 6:30 or 6:45 a.m. Chances are, when you go to Tommy’s, you’ll see him somewhere behind the counter.

In terms of the menu, Fello said the most popular items are the Ceebee (falafel, veggies, baba and sesame sauce), the IRS, French onion soup, brown rice and veggies. Like he said . . . something for everyone.

Although he’s had a restaurant in Cleveland Heights for more than 40 years, Fello is no longer a resident of the city. He and Cindy, his wife of 37 years, moved to Russell in 1982. They loved horseback riding, “so we built a house down there in Russell, and we had a barn and some horses,” he said. They have since stopped riding, but he still loves the outdoors, working in the flower gardens or chopping wood. He and Cindy have five daughters and seven grandchildren.

Over the years, he has considered opening a Tommy’s restaurant in other locations, and  is currently looking at the possibility of opening one on Cleveland’s West Side. But he remains very happy with his longtime location, and he loves his customers. “My favorite thing is interacting with people and pleasing the customers,” he said. “I’m a people person. If I didn’t have to pay bills, I could live off my interaction with the customers. That’s the thing I like most.”

Jim Henke

James Henke, a Cleveland Heights resident, is a former editor and writer for Rolling Stone magazine. He has written several books, including biographies of John Lennon, Bob Marley and Jim Morrison.

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Volume 6, Issue 2, Posted 12:01 PM, 01.31.2013