Tony and Tina Ferraro have owned Dominick’s for five years, two of them during a pandemic, and like most other restaurateurs, they’ve had to fight to keep their business afloat.
“I think we lost $500,000 in sales in a year and a half,” Tina Ferraro said, based on pre-pandemic numbers from the downtown Erie fixture at 123 E. 12th St.
She said she knew all restaurateurs were in the same boat.
“It’s not a ‘woe to us’ situation,” she said. “We’re not unique in this. I know. We’re just trying to be transparent about the issue.”
But she and her husband, a former welder, have tried everything to make a profit in a business she says costs $35,000 a month in expenses.
“Do you have any idea how many meatball omelets you have to sell to do that?” Tina Ferraro talked about the specialty of the restaurant. “We don’t do that in sales. We recently had a friend help us with payroll.
“I think if nothing changes, we won’t go until the summer.”
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Try everything to stay open
She said they’ve tried coupons, flyers, ready-to-eat meals, advertising, deal of the day, federal stimulus program loans and other measures to lure customers.
Now, she said, she’s going all out, quitting her own job managing the First Step project at the Erie Home for Children and Adults so she can work full-time at the restaurant and cutting dinner hours to singles. Saturday and Sunday.
“We understand that means we’re losing business, but we can’t afford to be open” for the table or two they were getting at dinner during the week, she said.
They’ve had complaints about the new hours from customers, but there aren’t enough repeat customers to pay the staff and utility bills needed to serve dinner all week.
During this time, the Ferraros tried to be frugal, replacing older equipment with more efficient parts to lower their utility bills, cutting staff hours, and making financial arrangements with suppliers.
At this point, the business is mortgaged, the land it sits on is mortgaged, as is the house they live in.
“We’ve been so far behind, we owe everyone everything,” said Tina Ferraro.
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A bright spot was supposed to help. They’ve been revamped and promised a feature on the Discovery Channel spin-off of Glenn Stearns’ “Undercover Billionaire.” But on the evening of the watch party, they learned that it had been postponed. Then it was rescheduled again, and when it finally aired, it was at 11 p.m., on a day they weren’t even aware of.
Meanwhile, events at Erie venues such as the Erie Insurance Arena, Warner Theater and other venues have been canceled, drawing fewer people. And while they understand that the new Flagship City Food Hall is exciting for the community as a whole, they fear it will drive business away from their neighborhood of the city.
“Our sales have been dismal since opening,” said Tina Ferraro.
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In contrast, the Roar on the Shore motorcycle rallies brought in so much business that they once ran out of food. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra and other concerts once meant crowded dining halls. The neighborhood office workers used to gather for lunch. But now, many companies haven’t brought their employees back to the office since remote work began two years ago.
“I’m not a pessimist by nature,” Tina Ferraro said. “But it’s really tested our patience and creativity. This crisis has made Tony and I stronger, and some days are good and we’re really happy, but the next day we’ll see one client per hour.”
She said she and her husband grew up eating at Dominick’s when it was run by Dominick (“Nick”) Sedei.
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Loyal customer JoAnn Love Dickey, 75, said she remembered Tony and Tina Ferraro from when she and her husband, the late Ed Lenz, frequented the restaurant.
“The kids who own it now — I call them kids because they came when they were teenagers — it was great to see them buy the restaurant and keep going,” Dickey said.
“But they’ve had difficulties and obstacles that they can’t do anything about,” Dickey said, recalling the days when her husband spent days sitting, eating and drinking coffee for two shifts as a waitress, others regulars coming and going.
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“It was a family,” she said. “I had a Facebook page for all the regulars and staff. But most of them are gone now.”
She doesn’t want the 12th Street venue, “home of the famous meatball omelet,” to close, but she doesn’t know what can be done.
“They just don’t get the deal,” Dickey said. “I don’t know why. The food is delicious and the service is good. They work so hard and I just wish I could do something.”
Tina Ferraro said that once she works there full-time, maybe she can put more energy into raising awareness and help save money on staff.
“It’s an asset to the community,” she said of the restaurant. “We organized the Emmaüs soup kitchen and free community Thanksgiving dinners.
“Everyone remembers going to Dominick’s after a night out drinking in the bars, back when the restaurant was open 24 hours a day.”
She said she was against the closure, but she also tries to be realistic.
“If we go out, we’re going to fight,” she said.
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Dominick’s dinner details
New hours:Monday to Thursday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
St. Patrick’s Day Special:Open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Corned beef and cabbage with potatoes.