Billy Fokakis usually only closes his longtime Hattiesburg restaurant, Coney Island Cafe, for a week at Christmas and a week around the Fourth of July. Other than those times, he hasn’t missed a day of work in the more than three decades he’s run the place.
But things are different now. Fokakis shut down the restaurant indefinitely Dec. 22 so he could undergo treatment for an aggressive form of cancer.
“I feel terrible about it,” Fokakis, 61, said. “It’s been my life for 34 years, and now I’m without it.
“I do 75 percent of the prep and 75 percent of the cooking. There really was no other option. Maybe in a few months I’ll be well and be able to go back.”
Dec. 22 was the day that changed Fokakis’ life. He bent down to feed the cat and felt so short of breath, he asked his girlfriend to take him to Forrest General’s emergency room.
Fokakis had known something was wrong for some time, but he had been afraid to get medical attention. He doesn’t like doctors.
“About six weeks before that, I knew I was sick,” he said. “I got real short of breath and had a swelling in my neck.”
The Petal resident recounts his symptoms as he sits in an easy chair at his sister’s Hattiesburg home, where he is getting around-the-clock supervision. He’s on oxygen and awaiting his chemotherapy treatment expected soon.
Medical personnel in the emergency room did blood work and a CAT scan of his neck, later informing him he had cancer. The extent would not be revealed until Dec. 26 when an ear, nose and throat specialist did a complicated biopsy of the mass on Fokakis’ neck.
The surgery required full anesthesia and was more invasive than normal because the location of the incision was so close to the jugular vein and carotid artery.
The biopsy results were disheartening: signet ring adenocarcinoma — a gastric cancer, the incidence of which is rising and which is resistant to chemotherapy. It was found the cancer had originated in Fokakis’ stomach and spread to his lungs, lymph nodes and neck.
‘Wouldn’t be the same without Dad’
Fokakis’ dismay over leaving his restaurant is understandable. Coney Island Cafe is part of downtown Hattiesburg’s history. The establishment at 400 N. Main St. was started in 1923 by Fokakis’ grandfather, Arthur; passed down to his father, Arthur Fokakis Jr.; and then on to Fokakis, who took it over in 1984. It is known for its hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches and Billy’s special curly fries.
Hattiesburg restaurateur Robert St. John recently chose the cafe as his subject matter when he was asked to participate in a documentary about Mississippi’s bicentennial.
“Mississippi’s been around for 200 years and for almost half that time, Coney Island Cafe has been open — 94 years,” St. John said. “It’s been run independently by only three guys — a man, his son and his grandson. That’s impressive.”
St. John was a regular patron of the cafe.
“I’m absolutely a fan of him and Coney Island,” he said. “I went there and my dad went there and his dad went there. I take my son there — four generations (of my family have gone there).
“Sometimes somebody gets sick and you always hate to hear it, but this floored me. Billy had never missed a day of work.”
Fokakis’ daughter, Kayla, 29, and her brother, Billy, 34, offered to take over the cafe from their dad, but Kayla said it didn’t seem right.
“It wouldn’t be the same without Dad,” she said. “Food-wise and atmosphere-wise — Dad has such a strong presence in that place.
“When I walk in and he’s not there, I know immediately. It feels different. He’s part of the experience. His regulars are his best friends.”
Raising money to help
Fokakis recently got health insurance, but he’s hoping to be treated at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where he might be accepted into a clinical trial.
“Chemo is just a holdover, it’s not a cure,” Kayla Fokakis said.
MD Anderson doesn’t accept Billy Fokakis’ health insurance, so his family is asking for donations for his medical bills. His daughter has set up a GoFundMe account, which has raised about $27,000 as of Tuesday morning.
St. John is planning an event on Jan. 25 when he’ll open Coney Island Cafe and serve Coney Island-inspired dishes from his own restaurant, Crescent City Grill. All the proceeds will go to Billy Fokakis’ medical bills.
Several downtown businesses have lent a helping hand, and other contributions are coming in.
“It’s a blessing,” Kayla Fokakis said. “It goes to show you what a good man he is.”
Wants to ‘get back to work’
Kayla Fokakis said this time of family trials has only increased her love for her father, with whom she had a standing Wednesday night dinner date.
“I didn’t know I could love him anymore,” she said. “Ever since this cancer, I’ve got to see him every day. I appreciate him so much more.”
Billy Fokakis is preparing for chemo and hoping for the best.
“(I want) to be well in the least amount of time possible and get back to work,” he said.
Kayla Fokakis has some hopes as well.
“I want to see him 100 percent healthy,” she said. “I want him to see me graduate. I want him to have grandchildren.
“I want him to have fishing weekends with the boys. I want my dad in the future.”