Tom Fello

Tom Fello, owner of Tommy’s Restaurant in Cleveland Heights, stands in his kitchen with milkshakes.

Tommy’s Restaurant has been a fixture on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights for 49 years, but according to owner Tom Fello, like many other dining establishments across the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred unprecedented changes for the eatery.

The restaurant closed on March 16, furloughing almost 60 employees, and reopened about two months later.

“We helped them with getting unemployment,” Fello said. “Whatever food we had left, we donated to either the food shelters or the people that worked here. Then we basically went into hibernation like a bear does over the winter. We cut off all the electricity that we could to save money, kept a couple freezers going, and that was it. Everything else was shut off until we could get ready to reassemble.”

It was May 4 before its doors reopened. Fello said approximately 10 employees chose not to come back.

“It was pretty scary for a long time,” he said. “We were gangbusters when we first opened, don’t get me wrong. People were really missing our food and we had five people answering the phones. It was like we’d never closed. ... It was hard even to keep up.”

The restaurateur said things started to slow down again once the weather got warmer and more patios opened. By the end of June, Fello was ready to shut down again, but was able to secure a last-minute lease on the former patio of Panini’s Bar and Grill, which closed in mid-March and never reopened.

By July 13, the patio, across the street from Tommy’s, was “fixed up and ready to go,” Fello said.

“We had to make all the food and cart it across the street to the customer, which is a trip in itself, but we made it happen and everyone worked their buns off to get it done,” Fello said. “We’d be crossing the street with those safety vests on, I wish I had a camera to take a picture of it – talk about doing anything you can to stay open.”

Fello noted business remained more consistent for curbside pickup than patio dining. He ultimately closed the patio on Sept. 30.

When he spoke with the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 7, Fello said, prior to the pandemic, Tommy’s was “doing probably about two-and-a-half times the business we’re doing now. So it really, dramatically slashed our volume tremendously.”

Fello said there’s not much cash flow at the restaurant for curbside pickup right now, and because of that, he is thinking about offering some indoor dining options.

“If that doesn’t work, I think we may just go ahead and shut it down until we’re able to get through this thing and open up at full-service,” Fello said.

At this point, he said he is just trying to break even.

“All I’m asking for is to keep everybody employed and try to make sure that they’re healthy and happy and that we do it safely, because if we can’t do it safely, I don’t want to do it,” Fello said.

Employees are undergoing frequent temperature checks and wearing gloves and masks. The restaurant will use sneeze guards, mandate masks for customers and follow social distancing and cleaning guidelines.

“How customers feel about the safety and the protocols that you’re using is paramount,” Fello said. “You have to have good food, you have to give good service, but most of all, people have to feel comfortable.”

Tommy’s is at 1824 Coventry Road.

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