HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - It's been a Hattiesburg staple since the early 1900s. Now, the Coney Island Cafe is closed after its longtime owner was recently diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
"We come in here in the morning, about eight or ten of us, and have breakfast here," Bobby Walters said. "We talk, Billy is here, we laugh and talk and drink coffee. He fixes me and him oatmeal. Nobody else will eat it, but Billy and I eat oatmeal every day."
The Fokakis family migrated from Greece nearly 100 years ago and began operating a fruit stand on Hattiesburg's Main Street. The business transitioned into Coney Island Cafe.
Walters, 77, is one of the small dining room fixtures that defines the characteristics of this small town cafe.
"When I got to be about 13 I got a paper route. So, I would pick up the papers at the Hattiesburg American off the ally back here, come around park my bicycle and then come in and get the curly fries in a bag, a brown paper bag," Walters said. "By the time I got up the street they would be greasy and dripping out of the bag, but it was wonderful. It was wonderful."
Passed down three generations, Billy Fokakis has continued the operation of the cafe. Just days before Christmas, his daughter Kayla and son B.J. were forced to post a closing sign to the front door.
"Signet ring adenocarcinoma. The worst word we've ever heard," Kayla Fokakis said.
The man usually seen manning the grill, telling jokes and serving his customers, Billy Fokakis, was diagnosed with the rare form of cancer.
"Basically, that type of cancer originates in the stomach lining and it has already made its way up to his neck," Kayla said. "So, it's in his stomach, his lungs, his lymph nodes and his neck."
This is the first time Billy has missed a day of work in more than 30 years. Family, friends and customers with heavy hearts are trying to come to grips with the sudden illness affecting the entire Coney family.
"Keep praying and keep him in your thoughts," B.J. Fokakis said. "As far as the cafe, that is on the back burner right now, but I don't think myself, she or my dad plans on closing it down. It's temporary. It's been here forever and we hope to keep it here forever more."
"Once the sign comes down, it will be a good sign," Kayla said. "That's what we are waiting on, the day we can take that sign down."
"This is the oldest establishment in this town that is still existing from the early 1900's," Walters added. "The owner is in trouble, and we need to help him."
The family is trying to get Mr. Fokakis an appointment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas for treatment, and there are ways you can help.