By Lee Batdorff
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FORTY FIVE YEARS AGO, on February 18, 1977, “The state of Tommy’s” was the banner headline of the second edition of the Coventry Shopping News when Tommy’s Restaurant and his landlord Lewis Zipkin, couldn’t agree on terms of a lease ending on March 31 for the dining counter restaurant’s space in Coventryard at Coventry Rd. and Euclid Heights Blvd. in Cleveland Heights Ohio.
This story starts with an account of extraordinary customer service on Tom Fello’s part for a customer from Lake County, doing Cleveland Heights proud—plus interviews with customers and employees and a description of the store. If you didn’t know it already, this story established that Tommy’s was cherished in Coventry Village and beyond.
The second of the two part story was published on March 21, 1977 with two front page headlines: “The state of the Yard” and “Tommy’s To U. Circle?” The State of the Yard focused on a run in that landlord Zipkin had with the Cleveland Heights building department. The city issued a stop work order against Coventryard for having extensive electrical work done in the building without permits—not the first run in developers Zipkin and Roger Ritley had with the city building department.
The story detailed incidents of poor management and communication which was driving out commercial tenants. Zipkin offered Tommy an increase of rent from $1.75 a square foot to $7 a square foot, quoted to say, “In effect, Tommy is operating at no rent whatsoever.”
The Tommy’s to U. Circle story was about Tommy closing his restaurant on March 19 and talking with landlords with store front space in Coventry and the nearby Cedar-Fairmont and University Circle commercial districts.
Coventryard was the first large development in Coventry Village attempting to capitalize on the neighborhood’s notoriety found in the late 1960s. The hippies starting moving into Coventry Village around 1967, about the time Tommy started working a few hours a week as a young teenager at the store which in 1972 became Tommy’s. Zipkin’s and Ripley’s Coventyard development of the building was started around 1976.
Tommy’s hit the front page of the Coventry Shopping News again in issue 7A, a single two-sided sheet issued on Monday, June 13, 1977 two days before a June 15 public meeting of the Cleveland Heights Board of Zoning Appeals at Cleveland Heights City Hall where Tom Fello was seeking a parking variance to allow Tommy’s to open up again at 1820 Coventry Road in the place of a former old style saloon, the Coventry Café. This is in the Coventry Center Building, the block long two story brick building on the west side of Coventry Road between Lancashire and Hampshire Roads.
Coventry Neighbors Incorporated held a public forum on June 14 at their meeting place, the old Unitarian Society at 2728 Lancashire Rd. and reviewed Tommy’s and Rocco’s Market requests that were to go in front of the BZA the following day. Rocco’s wanted to open a food market in a rebuilt three bay parking garage behind Coventryard.
In early evening Wednesday June 15, a group of several dozen people from the neighborhood gathered in front of the Unitarian Society and walked together about 3,000 feet to Cleveland Heights City Hall at 2953 Mayfield Road, now the location of the front entrance of Honda of Cleveland Heights. This stone edifice of the old City Hall entrance is still there, facing Mayfield Road incorporated into the Cleveland Heights Honda automobile dealership building.
With a crowd of supporters of over 100 filling City Council chambers, out the hall, down the steps, and out onto the sidewalk—Tommy’s proposal overcame opposition from Irving Sacks the owner of Coventry Beverage and Pizza and a new laundromat across Coventry from Tommy’s proposed location.
Around this time George Fitzpatrick, manager of the Heights Art Theater on Euclid Heights Blvd. at Coventry Road, held a big party of Tommy’s supporters at the theater. Attendees wrote messages of support of Tommy’s on a big message board, which Fitzpatrick had in-cased in a wood frame and delivered it to Tommy’s at the restaurant when it reopened in the new location.
Tommy’s left Coventryard in March 1977 and reopened in the Coventry Center Building in March 1978. If Tommy’s stayed at the first location, paying too much in rent, the restaurant would have been destroyed in the Coventryard Mall fire of Sunday Feb. 4—instead of the fortuitous March 1978 opening of a much larger restaurant in the center of Coventry Village.
On page two of Volume 2, issue 2, March 1978 of the Coventry Shopping News was the story: “Shopping News Interviews: Tommy on Coventry.” This wide ranging interview with Tom Fello was conducted inside the construction site of his new restaurant, interrupted by occasional passersby wishing the enterprise well. He was obviously a man with many opportunities and offers to move or add franchises during this period.
“I told some close friends to hit me with a baseball bat if I ever get money hungry and step on people” was this story’s outstanding quote from Tom Fello.