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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

From A Fruit Cart

January 25, 2018

Last week a documentary crew representing the Mississippi Bicentennial set up shop in my hometown and asked eight Hattiesburgers to film a three-minute documentary short on a topic of their choosing. I was one of the eight. A few of the participants struggled when deciding what to feature. The subject of my short was a no-brainer.

As a one-time documentarian, I considered myself a self-appointed representative of the entire Hattiesburg restaurant community, and in that role, there would be only one choice to feature— The Coney Island Café.

The Coney Island Café has been in existence for almost half of the time that Mississippi has been a state. That is an amazing feat. I am a 30-year restaurant veteran and considered an independent culinary anomaly. The Coney Island Café has been around three times longer than I, and all under the management of only three individuals— a grandfather, a father and a grandson.

I am grateful to Blue Magnolia Films, and its primary owners, Chandler Griffin and Allison Fast. By the end of the year, they will have collected 100 stories of the people and places in Mississippi for— what should turn out to be— an interesting, in-depth, important, and “real” time capsule of this state.

The following is my story:

Some people judge towns by population. Others judge them by amenities such as parks and playgrounds. Many consider school systems and tax policies.

I judge towns by the quality and longevity of their small independent diners and cafes.

For 94 years, the Coney Island Café has defined my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Arthur Fokakis, the original owner, emigrated here from Greece in 1923, 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.

Greek immigrants like Arthur were the early pioneers of the restaurant business in Mississippi. They were our culinary forefathers.

In 94 years, only three men 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,” and his son, Billy, took over in 1984. Three generations. Approaching a century of commitment, hard work, dedication, and service.

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.

Billy hasn’t missed a day of work since he took over the business. Not one. 33 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.

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 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 of the people of a town— black, white, young, old, rich, poor, local, tourist— for almost 100 years— a feat that can’t be measured by ribbons and trophies, or accolades.

The Coney Island Café 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.

I ate at the Coney Island Cafe as a kid. My father brought me there. His father brought him there. I bring my son there. I hope that he’ll do the same.

The Coney Island Café is a survivor.

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