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Robert St. John

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

The Return

March 21, 2018

It’s 7:05 a.m. on a Friday morning and I’m sitting in the newly reopened Coney Island Café on Main Street in Hattiesburg waiting on an order of pancakes and eggs to arrive at my table. For several stressful and grief-filled weeks, I thought I might never be able to do this again. I worried that after 94 years one of Mississippi’s most storied restaurants was gone for good.

The Coney Island Café opened on Main Street in my hometown of Hattiesburg in 1934. It— like many other small-town cafes across the state— is a “constant” in this town. In Mississippi, our small, locally owned cafes and diners define our towns. They tell the stories of that particular place and its people.

The Coney Island Café tells its own story. The walls are lined with 94 years of Fokakis family history, Hattiesburg history, and civic pride. Greek immigrants are the original framers of Mississippi’s restaurant foundation, and the first Coney Island owner, Arthur Fokakis, would most definitely be one of the founding fathers.

This past October, a documentary film project set up shop in Mississippi. The documentarians had chosen several towns and cities across the state to feature in a project that would celebrate Mississippi’s bicentennial. When I heard about this and learned that my hometown of Hattiesburg wasn’t on the list, I called the head documentarian, Chandler Griffin, and lobbied for Hattiesburg’s inclusion. He drove down the next day. During the course of our meeting, he talked me into being a participant in the process.

When our group met a few weeks later, the eight amateur Hattiesburg documentarians went around the table discussing the specific topic he or she wanted to feature in their short film. I knew from the moment I agreed to be a part of the project what my subject would be. It was a no-brainer. How could any restaurateur celebrating the state’s bicentennial NOT showcase a restaurant that has been around for almost half of the time that Mississippi has been a state?

The group tried to talk me into choosing one of my restaurants as the subject, but I wouldn’t be swayed. Once the film was complete, everyone agreed it had been the right choice.

I spent a few days in the Coney Island Café shooting photographs and talking to the third-generation owner, Billy Fokakis. As usual, our conversations covered Hattiesburg history, restaurant war stories, and discussions as to what he would do on the Coney’s eventual 100-year anniversary.

The two-days of filming were enjoyable. I had been eating in the Coney Island Café for over 50 years. My son is the fourth generation St. John to eat there. Families all over this area have similar histories with Hattiesburg’s oldest restaurant. I knew my subject well. At the end of the week, all eight participants previewed their documentary in the Hattiesburg Cultural Center. Billy invited his family and a few of his employees to the premiere. He was beaming that night, and he should have been. The restaurant business is a harsh mistress. An overwhelming majority of independent restaurants are out of business before their fifth birthday. He’d been a major part of a 94-year success story. It was a big night for all involved.

Two months after the premiere, on a cold, gloomy day in December, Billy was diagnosed with cancer. In a matter of weeks he was gone. What, at first, looked like a long, hard battle, ended up being a tragically short one.

When Billy received the diagnosis, he closed the restaurant. It was the first time the place had stood dark in 94 years. The town was caught off guard. Isn’t that how it always happens though? We take things for granted, and don’t really miss— or fully appreciate them— until they’re gone.

Billy Fokakis’ grandfather started the restaurant. He ran it until Billy’s father took over. Billy took the reins in 1984, and until that heartbreaking day in December, had never missed a day of work. Not one. From 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. every weekday for 33 years. I don’t think I had ever eaten in the Coney over the past 30 years that Billy and I didn’t discuss that upcoming 100-year anniversary— an amazing accomplishment in any city, at any restaurant.

Not long after Billy was diagnosed with cancer, our restaurant group came up with an idea to help pay for medical expenses. We would re-open the Coney for three meals in one day, and have a benefit concert in the parking lot. The response was unlike anything I had ever seen. It ended up being the largest, local, social media event I have ever witnessed. The city— many of whom admitted to not having visited the Coney in years— suddenly realized what they had, and what they had lost, and— rallied around Billy.

While preparing for the fundraiser, I was walking through the shuttered Cone Island Café with Bill’s daughter, Kayla. She said, “Dad told me to tell you that he’s sorry he won’t make 100 years.” That was a gut shot.

After Billy passed away, I asked Kayla if she or her brother were going to keep the restaurant going. They each had other jobs, and as is the case with many Greek restaurateurs, Billy was the only person who had any clue as what to do in the day-to-day operations of the Coney, as neither of the offspring had to fill in in their father’s absence. She wasn’t sure.

Two weeks ago, Kayla, and her brother B.J. re-opened the café and are now the fourth generation of Fokakis’ to run this restaurant. She, was set to begin her first semester of nursing school when her father was diagnosed. She postponed classes until the fall and attended to her father. These days, she’s attending to her father’s restaurant in the early mornings before she goes to her other job. B.J. has a solid job, but is coming in at 5:00 a.m. and working in the prep kitchen until his shift begins.

They are testing the waters to see if keeping the restaurant open is a viable option that could support the two of them. I am here doing my part. It’s been a rocky start, but the support has been overwhelming. People in town are turning out in huge numbers to support the re-opening of the café. Even though Kayla and B.J. are buying four times more groceries than their father was a few months ago, they are running out of food every day. There are service issues on occasion, but I think everyone realizes that Billy’s kids are doing their best.

They will get the hang of it in a few weeks. They’re hesitant to make any changes from what their father had been doing, but they’ll figure things out sooner than later. The re-opening honeymoon period will eventually settle into normal business, and I predict that The Coney Island Café will be around— and in the hands of the fourth generation of Fokakis’—to celebrate that 100th birthday. I’ll be there then, as I am sitting here now, in front of a plate of curly fries,n and thinking of Billy.

I am feeling grateful this morning, to—once again—be eating breakfast on Main Street in downtown Hattiesburg. Just as I did with my father and he did with his father. Just as I hope my son will do with his son. It smells like it always has in here—like cooked bacon and a griddle-cooked breakfast. In a few hours it will smell like burgers and fries. A well-seasoned short-order institution would smell no less. I’m sitting at the same booth and hearing the same stories from the same regulars, who are also sitting in their booths. All is right in this moment. As John Steinbeck said, “Once more the world is spinning in greased grooves.”

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