Fifty years ago, this Friday, a brave 19-year-old hung a hand-painted sign above the door of the first restaurant. At the suggestion of his boss, Tommy Ferro took over the seven-seat soda fountain on Coventry Road, where he worked, and renamed it Tommy’s. If there was talk of being in the right place at the right time, that’s it.
So, as I understand the inside story, it was your ex-boss who sent you to Middle Eastern cuisine.
I have never tasted pita bread before. I didn’t even know what it was. Without Fawze Saide, the last man I worked for, bringing his lunch, I wouldn’t even know what it was.
Tommy’s has started selling foods such as hummus, baba ghanoush and falafel. This was in 1972, before Cleveland got Nate’s deli and Aladdin. Did people think you were crazy?
Just around that time, all the hippies started to fall and they wanted more vegetarian food, yogurt milkshakes … and we responded to them.
Has the menu changed in the last 50 years?
Basically, we have the same menu since 1972. As trends have changed and customer demands have changed, some of the additions over the years are tempeh, seitan, vegan cheese and gluten-free. You have to adapt like any other place.
Tommy’s menu is unique for many reasons, but the main reason is that most items are named after real people.
For me, I was lucky to be able to choose and eat and spend money on many places, but unfortunately for them, and fortunately, if I needed Spike Hummus, I would only do it in one place. I can’t get it.
You set up a store on Coventry Road. If you were open elsewhere, are you still here today?
This neighborhood adopted me. They knew I was an idiot trying to run a restaurant with no skills at all. They supported me through three different fires that I was next to or involved in. That is why I love this neighborhood so much. It is that we respect each other.
Tommy survived three fires, 9.11 and the Great Recession. How are Covids compared?
The last two years have been the biggest challenge for me. Before Covid, I had 95% meals and 5% takeaways. We switched to a completely 100% takeout, but it’s a completely 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 blesses them.
Did you ever think it wouldn’t work?
The store was almost closed because there was not enough volume. The City of Cleveland Heights has allowed me and our block to take over three parking spaces for curbside pickup. Had it not been for the curveside pickup, it would have been out of business today.
The restaurant is not yet outside the woods. In fact, as it was two years ago, it seems difficult to survive today. Does the average customer understand how difficult it is?
What people don’t really understand is that it’s all about percentages. At this type of restaurant, if I sell $ 1 worth of food, I’m lucky to earn 4-5 cents. What is the rate of decrease as the cost of goods rises and labor costs rise? In other words, it’s revenue. You can only raise the price so much. Quality can’t be compromised, we don’t want it. You cannot cut the size. It is not desirable to cut the pita bread in half and serve half the sandwich. And they don’t see $ 5,000 a month in electricity and $ 2,000 a month in gas …
Knowing what you know now, if the same opportunity comes today, do you take it?
If I knew it would be very difficult to find someone to help me here, and if I knew how difficult it would be … Look, I love my job. If I hadn’t loved it, I wouldn’t have been able to do it for 50 years. I love people, I love socializing, I love people I work with, but if I was going to open a restaurant at this time of the year for the last two years, it would be too difficult to do.
You are 69 years old I went to work today at 5 am.Do you have any plans to retire??
People keep asking me, “When will you retire?” I think I will retire when I don’t like to do it anymore or when I can’t do it anymore. You will be younger by moving and doing what you like. It’s a challenge and I’m proud of it.
When it’s time to cut the apron, what’s your successor plan?
My first plan is, if you’ve seen a “weekend in Barneys”, they just support me with the front window and I’m waving to people. If not, I’m not worried that it will shut down, as some of my family members will help those who have worked here for a long time take over. I’m more worried about getting it done through these next few years. It’s a difficult time and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
1824 Coventry Road
Tommy Fello looks back on 50 years at Tommy’s Restaurant
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