Mississippi man fights cancer, closes historical restaurant

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.

Posted: Jan 21, 2018 11:49 PM

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — 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 to come sometime this week.

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.

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."

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."

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."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 497790

Reported Deaths: 9917
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34102530
DeSoto31839398
Hinds31837622
Jackson24314377
Rankin21881388
Lee15427234
Madison14525279
Jones13772241
Forrest13412250
Lauderdale11937314
Lowndes10934185
Lamar10470135
Pearl River9431237
Lafayette8454138
Hancock7697126
Washington7365156
Oktibbeha7111129
Monroe6727174
Warren6642176
Pontotoc6609101
Neshoba6606205
Panola6460131
Marshall6386132
Bolivar6266145
Union596094
Pike5784152
Alcorn5633101
Lincoln5417134
George491879
Scott470998
Tippah465381
Prentiss464181
Leflore4627143
Itawamba4596104
Adams4570119
Tate4546109
Copiah445191
Simpson4421116
Wayne438572
Yazoo438586
Covington427394
Marion4216107
Sunflower4215104
Coahoma4115104
Leake407787
Newton380879
Grenada3692108
Stone358464
Tishomingo356391
Attala330289
Jasper328265
Winston313191
Clay306375
Chickasaw296767
Clarke290694
Calhoun277945
Holmes266987
Smith262550
Yalobusha232647
Tallahatchie225251
Walthall217763
Greene215548
Lawrence211140
Perry204755
Amite203954
Webster201645
Noxubee185340
Montgomery179056
Jefferson Davis170642
Carroll167438
Tunica158639
Benton147438
Kemper141241
Choctaw133026
Claiborne131237
Humphreys129038
Franklin119128
Quitman106227
Wilkinson104539
Jefferson94234
Sharkey64020
Issaquena1937
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 814025

Reported Deaths: 15179
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1140561910
Mobile722691323
Madison52017686
Shelby37304341
Baldwin37087540
Tuscaloosa34966599
Montgomery33971725
Lee23149240
Calhoun22159470
Morgan20659372
Etowah19764496
Marshall18254300
Houston17310405
St. Clair15921337
Cullman15325290
Limestone15222198
Elmore15086284
Lauderdale14157294
Talladega13723272
DeKalb12574259
Walker11089366
Blount10102174
Autauga9901146
Jackson9793180
Coffee9182189
Dale8864181
Colbert8791200
Tallapoosa7044195
Escambia6743127
Covington6685179
Chilton6592160
Russell626158
Franklin5935105
Chambers5560142
Marion4958126
Dallas4889199
Clarke473482
Pike4720105
Geneva4564126
Winston4476101
Lawrence4266117
Bibb421786
Barbour355675
Marengo334089
Monroe330462
Randolph327663
Butler324894
Pickens313982
Henry311265
Hale309487
Cherokee300057
Fayette290979
Washington251151
Cleburne247058
Crenshaw243775
Clay240767
Macon230762
Lamar217846
Conecuh185652
Coosa178838
Lowndes174161
Wilcox167738
Bullock151744
Perry138040
Sumter131138
Greene125844
Choctaw87027
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