A former fruit cart at a century
Published 11:42 am Wednesday, June 21, 2023
By Robert St. John
Some people judge towns by their population. Others judge them by amenities such as parks and playgrounds. Many consider school systems and tax policies when evaluating municipalities. Still others prioritize water and air quality.
I judge towns by the excellence and longevity of their small independent diners and cafes.
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For 100 years, the Coney Island Café has defined my hometown of Hattiesburg. Arthur Fokakis, the original owner, emigrated here from Greece in 1923. He got his start by selling fruit from a pushcart he parked under a large shade tree near the railroad tracks on Main Street.
After a few years, he leased the land under the tree and built an open-front fruit stand. A few years later he turned the fruit stand into a short-order café that served hamburgers, hot dogs, homemade curly fries and breakfast, just as it does today.
Greek immigrants like Arthur were the early pioneers of the restaurant business in Mississippi. They were our culinary forefathers. In 100 years, only four Fokakis men— all direct decedents— have run the Coney Island Cafe. It’s the definition of a true, family-run operation.
Arthur turned the business over to his son, also a Greek immigrant, who everyone called “Junior.’ His son Billy took over in 1984. After Billy’s untimely passing five years ago, his son B.J. began manning the griddle and still runs it today. Four generations of fathers and sons. A century of commitment, hard work, dedication, and service. Truly rare air in the restaurant business. Seriously, the rarest of air.
There has been a member of the Fokakis family manning the grill at The Coney Island Café since Calvin Coolidge was in the White House. The Coney Island Café in Hattiesburg predates the Empire State Building in New York, but— to us— it’s just as iconic of a structure in downtown Hattiesburg as the 102-floor structure is in Midtown Manhattan.
Billy Fokakis was a few years older than me, but we were friends. Once Billy took over the business, he never missed a day of work. Not one: 34 years. 6am to 3pm. Every day. He once scheduled surgery on a Friday afternoon, so he could be back to work on Monday. He was.
Locally owned restaurants and cafes are key to the makeup of a city or town’s character. Whenever I am out of town I go to the front desk of the hotel and ask directions to the local breakfast café. “I want to go where the old men are talking sports and politics over eggs and bacon,” I say. That is the place where one learns of that town and its people.
I do my best to only support locally owned restaurants, and independent restaurateurs. The owners are in your town, and they live in your neighborhood. Their kids and grandkids go to school with your kids and grandkids. They shop in your stores and buy groceries in your markets.
I believe independent restaurateurs support locally owned businesses more than others in the community, because they know — on a deep and personal level— how important it is to keep all commerce local whether it be grocery stores, hardware stores, gas stations, or boutiques.
A chain-restaurant proponent might make the argument that the chain restaurants are hiring people who also live in the community, and I can’t dispute that. But corporate profits get sent to corporate headquarters in Dallas, Orlando or wherever the base of operations is located.
Think of it this way— if there weren’t so many chain restaurants in your community squeezing out the independent operators, there would be more independent restaurants filling that void, creating unique character, vibe and distinctiveness in your town, while keeping everything local.
I believe restaurants have souls. They define a town and tell the story of that place and its people. Some restaurants take on the personality of their owner, some take on the collective personality of the staff. Still others adopt the characteristics of their customers or the town itself. The Coney Island Café is a little bit of all that wrapped up in a small dining room filled with stools, booths, and memories.
The Coney Island Café probably won’t ever win a James Beard Award or get special recognition in any of the national culinary trades. But it has done so much more. It has fed all the people of a town — black, white, young, old, rich, poor, local, tourist, for 100 years — a feat that can’t be measured by ribbons, and trophies, or accolades.
The Coney has survived a world war, a great depression, and dozens of recessions. It was there in the early days when downtown Hattiesburg grew and thrived. It never wavered when those businesses moved away to open shiny new stores in sprawling malls and strip centers. It held firm during the white flight of the 1980s and was still standing when downtown’s renewal and renaissance began in the late 1990s. The Coney Island Café is a survivor.
I ate at the Coney Island Cafe as a kid. My father brought me there. His father took him here. I take my son there. I hope that he’ll do the same.
The last conversation I had with Billy Fokakis was about his café reaching the 100-year mark. It’s something we spoke about every time I dined with him. One of the last things he said to me was, “Robert, I don’t think I’m going to get to see us hit 100.” A few weeks later he was gone. B.J. Fokakis was the next in line and he took over immediately. Billy would be proud. So would Junior and Arthur.
We are all proud.
So, on behalf of a grateful community, happy 100th to the Coney Island Café and the hard-working Fokakis family. Here’s to 100 more!