From a Fruit Cart

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 94 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 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's 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. Thirty-three 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 their 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’s done so much more.

It’s fed all of the people of a town – black, white, young, old, rich, poor, local, tourist – for almost 100 years.

A feat like 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 here. His father brought him here. I bring my son here. I hope that he’ll do the same.

The Coney Island Café is a survivor.

 

In Memory of Billy Fokakis (June 29, 1956 - January 15, 2018), owner of the Coney Island Cafe and Downtown Hattiesburg mainstay. Originally published as part of the Celebrating Storytellers Mississippi Bicentennial Project published in The Hattiesburg Post on November 2, 2018.

 

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