Tony Fanara, 74, knows what it’s like to struggle. He grew up in Sicily, Italy as the oldest of three children. His father was a farmer but the family barely made ends meet.
Listen to Tony Fanara's story starting at 6:22 in this Kind World episode:
"I was born right after the war," Tony said. "Many times ... I used to see my mom and dad basically crying saying ‘how are we going to feed the kids?’"
Tony's family immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. He was 16 then and barely spoke English. Still, Tony attended school while working part-time. He first shined shoes and later found work at a winery.
More than a decade later, after graduating from Junior college, Tony used his savings to open up a restaurant in Los Angeles. He named it Palermo.
"I didn’t know nothing about the restaurant business believe it or not. I didn’t even know how to cook but I learn very fast," Tony said.
Opening a restaurant was a struggle. Buying and renovating the building almost bankrupted Tony. Then, keeping it open was a whole other challenge. To this day, Tony still works between 12 and 20 hours per day, 6 days a week.
"It’s not easy, the restaurant business. You have no life at all," Tony said. "I’ve been doing this for 44 years and it’s hard."
Joe Oliveri, 72, is a retired LAPD officer and has been going to Palermo for almost as long as it has been open. He says Tony has a reputation for being generous.
"He’s just that kind of guy that if we needed help with something, all we had to do was ask him and he’d take care of it," Joe said.
On several occasions, Joe says Tony sent free food to first responders during times of crises - like major fires or accidents.
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Tony faced his own crisis. He lost 90% of his sales.
"We basically down to almost nothing," Tony said.
Tony's had to furlough most of his employees. Only the core kitchen staff, made up of 10 people, remain. Joe worried that things would only get worse, so he decided to do something to help. For the first time in his life, Joe created an online fundraiser.
"It took off like wildfire. It was unbelievable," Joe said.
Since April, Joe's been able to raise more than $65,000 for Tony and the staff at Palermo.
"I was very surprised," Tony said. "That’s a lot of money!"
It was more than money. Many donors also left heartwarming notes about Tony, and shared examples of his kindness. Some recounted how he would often give free food to people struggling with homelessness.
"I didn’t know people liked me that much. Now I can see that a lot of people do," Tony said. "When you’re nice to people, people are nice back to you."
Tony plans to use the money to pay taxes for his business. Then he'll split the rest evenly among his current work staff.
Joes hopes this inspires more efforts to support small businesses. After all, these are the very institutions that transform our cities, streets, and neighborhoods into flourishing communities.