“I had no idea what I was doing,” admits Tommy Fello about the early days of Tommy’s, his much-beloved eatery in Cleveland Heights. He started working as a 14-year-old soda jerk at the Fine Arts Confectionary, eventually purchasing the eatery in 1972 as a 19-year-old Cleveland Heights High School graduate with no business model but a host of loyal customers. Following decades that included expansion and a few devastating fires, Tommy’s moved to its current location in 1993, where vegetarians, vegans and carnivores alike go for filling and honorific fare in a brightly lit, homey setting. Fello took some time out of the kitchen — where he still works the line — to talk location, menus and milkshakes.
On Tommy’s eclectic food: Fawze Saide, the third owner [of the Fine Arts Confectionary], would work the shop and his wife Helen would bring down Lebanese food like falafel, hummus and baba ganoush. People would look at what he was eating, look down at their cellophane-wrapped lunches, and say, “We want what Fawze is eating.” Part of the purchase price was that he and his wife had to show me how to make everything. And then my mom was Italian, so she taught me dishes too.
On changing the name: I couldn’t think what to rename it when I bought the space. The customers told me, “You can call it anything you want, but we’re going to call it Tommy’s no matter what.” And that was it for the name.
On the names of the dishes: I was a one-man operation, and the same people would come in and order the same thing. So rather than write down everything, I would save time by writing their nickname or their initials. The IRS doesn’t stand for Internal Revenue Service. It’s for Ira Robert Schwartz, who would always come in after playing basketball across the street and order a spinach pie with cheese and mushrooms. It’s all in my head, and sometimes I forget that the cooks on the line don’t know the stories behind the names.
On having a business in Coventry: This neighborhood saved me I don’t know how many times. There’s no way I should still be in business today. We’ve had a few fires in our history. The first fire was in the first store in 1976. I think I had 30 cents on the dollar for insurance. The insurance company gave me piddly money to rebuild, but you know how I rebuilt? The community came together. People showed up, hammered, painted and put me back together.
On his milkshakes: I use local ingredients wherever I can, like Pierre’s ice cream, Hartzler’s organic milk, fresh strawberries. But it’s also important that the milkshake is not only poured into your glass at the table, but that the tin stays there, and you finish it off. It brings you back to when you were a little kid in the drugstore.
When You Go: Tommy’s / 1824 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-321-7757, tommyscoventry.com.
Read More: Click here to read the full list of 18 Classic Cleveland Restaurants.