Filed Under Food

Tommy's

Walk down Coventry in the mid-1970s and you’d probably see a large yellow sign—Tommy’s—on a wood-paneled storefront where Coventry Road intersects with Euclid Heights Boulevard. Inside this unique restaurant, all 27 seats would likely be filled. However, that would be a mere fraction of the myriad fans of Tommy Fello's milkshakes and Americanized Lebanese food. Three Coventry-area locations and forty years later, Tommy's has flourished. Its seats (now 125) are still filled and the same wonderful smells still waft out to greet passersby.

Tommy began working at his restaurant's predecessor: a drug store and soda fountain called The Fine Arts Confectionery (formerly Ace Drug and, before that, Merit Drug), located on the current site of the Inn on Coventry. As a soda jerk and stock boy, Tommy worked under three different owners. But it was the last, Fawze Saide, who inspired Tommy to become the owner of the most famous restaurant on Coventry. Tommy noticed that when Fawze brought his lunches to work, the customers who came to drink their milk shakes and eat their unappetizing heat-and-eat sandwiches at the drug store curiously sniffed the Lebanese owner's Middle Eastern cuisine. Tommy suggested they start selling the same food Fawze's wife brought him for lunch. The soon-to-be business owner took those pita bread sandwiches to sell during his short time at a computer school. After Fawze retired and moved back to Lebanon, Tommy purchased the facility. Part of the agreement was that Fawze would teach him how to make hummus, baba ghannouj and falafel. Nineteen-year-old Tommy was then in business, selling drug store merchandise, the same great milkshakes, and Lebanese sandwiches.

It wasn't until CoventrYard developer Lewis Zipkin pushed Tommy out of his store by threatening a 500 percent rent increase that Tommy fully realized the potential in the restaurant side of the business. "For me as a business move it was great because . . . it forced me to take a look at what I was doing . . . There wasn't a future in that drug store and that soda fountain; there was a future in the food part of it." He closed in March 1977 but reopened the next year in a new location where Mac's Backs-Books now is.

Tommy stayed for a decade until a fire that started in High Tide Rock Bottom's basement caused half the block, including Tommy's dining room, to go up in flames. He then moved to a third location—the former site of Coventry Café (a dingy “old man’s bar”)—combining the kitchen of his old store with a new dining room. Tommy's officially opened at its current location at 1824 Coventry Road in May 1993. He still makes milkshakes the same way he did when he was a soda jerk at The Fine Arts Confectionery. And most food offerings continue to be named after friends, longtime customers, and even celebrities who suggested the recipes.

Audio

Rich History Restaurant owner Tommy Fello talks about how people met their spouses at Tommy's. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
All Over the World Restaurant owner Tommy Fello talks about from where the names on his menu came. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Lebanese Food Restaurant owner Tommy Fello talks about how the soda shop he worked for and took over started to sell Lebanese food. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

First Location Located where the Inn on Coventry now stands, Tommy opened his drug store and soda fountain in 1972 when he was only 19 years old. He had learned how to make Lebanese food from his last boss and former owner of the drug store, Fawze Saide. Tommy's mother would make the food at their home and bring it to the small luncheonette to be reheated. Source: Tommy Fello
A Jolly Good Fellow When he temporarily closed his doors in 1977, owner of the Heights Arts Theater George Fitzpatrick and Tommy's friends threw him a farewell party at the Fitzpatrick's theater. About 700 of Tommy's customers and friends came to present Tommy with a silver belt buckle, watch "2001: A Space Odyssey" and sing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Source: Tommy Fello
Seating Expansion at Tommy's Tommy's began where his business's predecessor,The Fine Arts Confectionery began - as a drug store and small soda fountain - and it had seven seats at the bar. Eventually Tommy took out the school supply section of his drug store to make room for twenty more seats. When Tommy's reopened, he had fifty more seats to accommodate his new restaurant venture. Source: Tommy Fello
Drug Store When Tommy had to close down or else bear a tremendous rent increase, he began to rethink the way he had been running his business. He realized that there was no money in the drug store side of his business, and instead focused on the restaurant side when he reopened in 1978. Source: Tommy Fello
Tommy at the Coventry Street Fair Tommy Fello is an active community member. One of the many ways he has shown his support for Coventry is his participation in the Coventry Street Fair, an annual event that started in the 1970s. During the early street fairs, Tommy would sell sandwiches for 50 cents and his famous milkshakes for only 40 cents. While remembering all of the food he sold, Tommy stated, "it was a zoo." Source: Joe Polevoi
Tommy's Second Location Tommy's closed in March 1977, but he reopened at 1820 Coventry. He was there for ten years until a fire broke out that destroyed half the block. He was able to salvage his kitchen, but his temporary dining room took up 1824 Coventry, which had once belonged to Coventry Cats and High Tide Rock Bottom. Tommy Fello is sometimes called the Mayor of Coventry Village because he's among the longstanding businesspeople still on the street. Source: Tommy Fello
Still Behind the Grill Line Tommy described the day his restaurant reopened in April 1978 as "one of the hardest days of my life." He was excited to see all of his old customers and friends, but he had to stay focused on training and making their food. When visiting his restaurant today, you can still see Tommy working behind the grill line. Source: Tommy Fello

Location

1824 Coventry Rd, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118

Metadata

Heidi Fearing, “Tommy's,” Cleveland Historical, accessed August 13, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/435.