Billy Fokakis hasn’t missed a day of work in 31 years.
How many people do you know who can make that statement? The answer for me is one: Billy Fokakis. Five days a week, 52 weeks every year, for 31 years, Fokakis has opened and closed the doors to his business. It’s not some cushy desk job either. Fokakis is the owner, manager, line cook, cashier, and head prep cook of the Coney Island Café on Main Street in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss.
The restaurant business is a brutal and demanding business. In the early days of The Purple Parrot Café I worked 90-hour weeks in the kitchen and maintained that pace for the first four years. But I took a week or two off after a while. The longest stretch I ever worked back then was probably 10 months. In those days we were closed on Sundays so I had one day off every week. Fokakis would have called me a slacker.
Billy Fokakis has worked every day his business has been open since he took over the reins after his father’s stroke in 1984. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, “Outliers: The Story of Success” (Little Brown 2008), stated that most successful artists, inventors, or athletes need 10,000 hours of practice to achieve perfection in their chosen area or trade. Fokakis has almost accumulated 10,000 DAYS— that’s over 87,000 hours— behind the counter at the Coney Island Café. That’s more than eight times what Gladwell estimated it took the Beatles and Bill Gates to reach the pinnacle of their respective fields.
The restaurant business is a harsh mistress. According to Hannah Wickford at Gannett’s Demand Media, “…up to 90 percent of independent [restaurant] establishments close during the first year, and the remaining restaurants will have an average five-year life span.” The Coney Island Café blows those stats out of the hemisphere.
There has been a Fokakis manning the grill at The Coney Island Café since Calvin Coolidge was in the White House. No matter what type of business one is operating, an 89-year run is an amazing feat. But to do it in the restaurant business is mindboggling. I am considered a grizzled veteran of the food biz, but my tenure only goes back to the final year of the Reagan administration.
When The Coney Island Café opened its doors, Harry Houdini, Thomas Edison, and Rudolph Valentino were still alive and Henry Ford hadn’t even been making cars for two decades. Al Capone was early in his reign as boss of Chicago and a 250-pound Babe Ruth tried to steal second base in a World Series game.
Arthur Fokakis emigrated from Greece in 1923 and started selling fruit from a pushcart. There was a large shade tree on Main Street where Fokakis parked his cart. The location was good and eventually he leased the land for an open-front fruit stand before eventually turning it into a short-order café that serves hamburgers, hot dogs, homemade curly fries, and a good breakfast to this day.
Greek immigrants were the early pioneers of the restaurant business in Mississippi. In Jackson, the Delta, and Hattiesburg, it was Greek immigrants, and their Herculean work ethic, who successfully operated the early cafes and diners in downtown areas across the state.
In Hattiesburg, everything revolved around the train station. At rail travel’s peak, there were over 20 trains a day that stopped in downtown Hattiesburg. If one stands at the train depot today and looks across to the businesses of downtown, one will spot a café, or former café, at the closest corner in proximity to the tracks at every point. Passengers would jump off of the train at the station and have time to run to one of several cafés or diners and grab a hotdog, hamburger, or soft drink, before hopping back onto the train en route to Atlanta, New York, or New Orleans. Arthur Fokakis, and his son, Junior— Billy Fokakis’ grandfather and father respectively, both Greek immigrants— were there to serve those hungry passengers and The Coney Island Café is the only one still standing. At 58-years old, Billy Fokakis, as he has done without fail from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for 31 years, is still standing behind the counter.
“We recently had a table of diners that represented five generations of a family who have eaten here,” said Fokakis at breakfast this morning. “We get three generations all of the time, but to have five, that was pretty amazing.”
In that 1926 World Series, Babe Ruth was tagged out at second base. Fokakis doesn’t plan to be tagged out anytime soon. When asked how long he can keep the streak going, Fokakis, a man— like his father and grandfather before him— who has no concept of the word retirement replied, “I don’t see an end to it. As long as I’m able I’ll keep doing it.”
Grilled Eye of Round Sandwiches
1 Eye of Round Roast, about 2 1/2 pounds
1/4 cup no-stick grilling marinade for beef
1 Tbl Creole Seasoning
1 Tbl Black Pepper, freshly ground
6-8 Hamburger Buns
1//4 cup olive oil
1 1/2-2 cups Romaine Lettuce, shredded
1 Recipe Fried Tobacco Onions
8-10 Fresh Tomato Slices
1 recipe Dijon-Horseradish sauce
Rub the no-stick marinade over the entire surface of the roast and marinate at room temperature for one hour before grilling. Sprinkle the surface of the roast with the steak seasoning and black pepper.
Prepare the grill. Sear the roast over direct high heat for 12-15 minutes, turning it every 3-4 minutes. Move the roast to indirect high heat and continue cooking until desired doneness is reached, about 20-30 more minutes for medium (145 degrees).
Remove the roast from the grill and allow it to rest for 15 minutes before slicing. While the roast is resting, brush the insides surfaces of the hamburger buns with the olive oil. Grill for 2-3 minutes.
Slice the eye roast as thin as possible. Layer the bun with thin slices of the beef, and top with the tobacco onions, tomato slices and romaine lettuce. Serve with Dijon-horseradish sauce on the side.
No-Stick Grilling Marinade for Beef
4 Egg Yolks
1 Tbl Dijon Mustard
1/4 cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 cup Canola Oil
1 cup Light Olive Oil
Warm water as needed
2 Tbl Lawry’s Season Salt
2 Tbl Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 Tbl Lemon Pepper Seasoning
2 tsp Garlic Powder
1 tsp Onion Powder
Place the egg yolks, Dijon mustard, and vinegar in a food processor. Blend on medium speed for 1-2 minutes.
Slowly drizzle oils into the mixture, one tablespoon at a time. If the marinade becomes too thick, add 1-2 tablespoons of warm water. Once all of the oil has been incorporated, add seasoned salt, pepper, lemon pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder until incorporated. Store covered in the refrigerator until needed.
Yield: 2 1/2 cups
Dijon Horseradish Sauce
2 TBL yellow mustard
1 /4 cup prepared horseradish
3/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup honey
2 Tbl bourbon
1 Tbl ketchup
1 Tbl red wine vinegar
1 Tbl parsley, chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
Mix together all ingredients. For the best flavor, prepare and refrigerate the mustard a day in advance. And allow the mustard to get to room temperature before serving.
Yield: 1 1 /2 cups