Grab a broom and a dustpan because I am about to drop some names. My friend Marty Stuart, country music legend, multi-instrumentalist, curator, fellow Mississippian, and all-around great guy, and his friend Ken Burns the world’s finest documentarian— alive or dead— are supporting a project called Honor Your Hometown. I was honored to have been chosen to honor my hometown in a short video clip.
The initial email I received soliciting my participation stated, “In an era of deep divide, we long for something hopeful, inspiring, inclusive, nonpartisan and fun. We cannot dismiss or discount our differences. But we can overcome them by remembering and highlighting our shared bonds.” OK, you’ve got my attention, I thought.
Stuart says, “We all come from somewhere, and we all have someone there who played a big role in making us who we are. We want to honor our hometowns and those special people there who helped us find our way.” Now that’s a cause I can get behind. Actually, they had me at “hometown.”
The instructions stated, “We invite you to join Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Ken Burns and so many others by producing a short iPhone-quality video where you tell us a story about your hometown and a person there who made a difference in your life. If possible, we’d love for you to show us a memento or photo of your hometown or the person you are honoring.”
“We have found it extraordinary how someone telling a story about a coach who changed their life in Brooklyn will sound so much like someone celebrating a teacher from their small town in Kansas. These are the bonds that unify us. We believe these stories serve as reminder that more connects us than divides us and lead to our ultimate goal of making “Honor Your Hometown” an annual celebration.”
I knew exactly what hometown subject I was going to choose halfway through the first paragraph.
Stuart gave me cart blanche on the subject matter, but it didn’t take me long to focus on who I wanted to honor in my hometown. It’s likely that the creators of this initiative thought I would honor one of my restaurants. To be honest, I never considered it. Not because the 300 people who show up to work today at our businesses don’t deserve honoring, they most certainly do. But when it comes to honoring any business in my hometown, my thoughts always go to the Coney Island Café.
Some people judge towns by their 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 98 years, the Coney Island Café has defined my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
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, and an institution was born.
Greek immigrants like Arthur were the early pioneers of the restaurant business in Mississippi. They were our culinary forefathers. In 98 years, only four men have run the Coney Island Café, all with the surname, Fokakis. Arthur turned the business over to his son— also a Greek immigrant— who everyone called “Junior,” and his son, Billy, took over in 1984. Four years ago, Billy’s son, B.J., took over after the untimely death of his father. It’s the definition of a true, family-run operation.
Four 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.
The Fokakis family thread is weaved through the fabric of this town like no other. Billy Fokakis was always a friend. Joseph Fokakis was my junior high history teacher and football coach. Angela Fokakis was a classmate and friend. Mike Fokakis was my boss at my first bartending job. I bought every Beatles album and 45 from Nick Fokakis at his music store, and Junior, Billy, and now B.J. have fed me bacon for breakfast, burgers for lunch, and countless plates of curly fries at both.
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 took me there. His father brought him there. I bring my son there. I hope that he’ll do the same.
Be on the lookout for the upcoming Honor Your Hometown campaign and my feature on The Coney Island Café.