St. John and company make plans to benefit Coney Island's Fokakis


Hattiesburg’s restaurant community is a tight-knit group and never has that been more evident than earlier this week when restaurateur Robert St. John announced plans for an all-day benefit for Coney Island Café owner Billy Fokakis.

St. John, the owner of the New South Restaurant Group of local eateries including Crescent City Café, Purple Parrot, Branch, The Mahogany Bar, Ed’s Burger Joint, and Tabella, said he began making plans for Fokakis, who is battling an aggressive form of cancer, shortly after hearing about the diagnosis.

“The Coney Island Café is a Hattiesburg mainstay,” said St. John. “Since 1923, it has been serving the citizens of Hattiesburg from that small building at 400 North Main Street. My father took me there. His father took him there. I take my son there.”

The downtown restaurant has been owned and operated by three generations of the Fokakis family – including Billy for the last 33 years.

“He had never missed a day of work— not one day— until a few weeks ago when he had to close the doors.”

That’s when St. John said plans begin to come together for what’s being billed as “A Day for Billy.”

On Thursday, Jan. 25, the chefs and servers from the Crescent City Grill will  reopen the doors of the Coney Island Cafe for one day.

“We’ll cook and serve from a specially designed breakfast and lunch menu we created,” explained St. John. “And best of all, 100 percent of all of the sales will go to Billy’s Gofund campaign to help with his medical treatment.”

Breakfast will be served from 7 to 11 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Crowds are expected, so patience is asked in advance.

At 7 p.m. that same evening, the bartenders and cocktail servers from The Mahogany Bar will head downtown to serve specially created cocktail and appetizer menus at the Coney – again with 100 percent of proceeds going to Fokakis.

Beginning at 8 p.m., local songwriter Cary Hudson will be leading a Sit-In Jam Session with local musicians next door to the restaurant in the Regions Bank parking lot on Main Street.

Area musicians are invited to sit in and jam with Hudson and company.

Fokakis has been diagnosed with Signet Ring Adenocarcinoma – a rare and aggressive cancer that affects about one percent of all cancer patients. Because of the unique and deadly nature of the disease, medical expenses are especially expensive and difficult to obtain.

Because of the impending medical expenses and time for recuperation, the restaurant has closed.

Billy’s daughter, Kayla, said getting a medical facility that will accept his insurance or offer treatment has been hard.

“If we can get in any place, we are going as soon as possible,” she said. “We need to start the process. … The only option is treatment, so he needs to get in somewhere that has trials, clinical trials.”

Longtime friend Bobby Walters said Fokakis at first thought coughing and lung soreness came from a leak in the roof.

“There was some mold from the leak,” he said. “So he thought that was where it came from. Then he started having shortness of breath. They took x-rays and found it.”

The cancer usually forms in the stomach and metastasizes throughout the body.

Kayla said a PET scan of her father’s body and an MRI of the brain on Jan. 4 showed where the cancer was located and where it originated.

“We received the news on Jan. 5 that the cancer has not spread to his brain, kidney, liver, spleen or pancreas,” she said. “However, we are certain it originated in his stomach, went up into his lungs, spread into his lymph nodes and neck.”

Kayla said her father’s insurance is considered “out of network,” so the costs escalate because of that. Medical centers like Ochsner’s in Baton Rouge and M.D. Anderson in Houston would require $54,000 for a consultation visit and as much as $400,000 for treatment, she said.

A Gofundme account has been set up for Fokakis and has raised more than $27,000 in less than two weeks. Kayla and Walters said Fokakis will fight the cancer if he has a chance.

“For 94 years, the Coney has been there for us,” said St. John. “Let’s be there for them.”