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Tue October 9, 2007
A Centennial Celebration of the Bright Star Restaurant
Greeks are famous for choosing self-employment over working for others. That is a commonplace. There's more money and freedom in owning your own business, however humble, and being the boss. In any case, these Greeks took a look at the coal mines, where miners were killed in ceiling collapses and explosions, and at the foundries, where workers slaved away in the summer near furnaces in unimaginable heat, and "discovered they were better suited for the restaurant and food service industries."
By Don Noble
In his 2006 memoir A Writer's Life, Gay Talese speaks of book projects he undertook but never quite finished. One of these was to do with the restaurant business, how it is, in America, both a melting pot for immigrants from many nations and the ladder upwards, financially and socially. He was to focus on a restaurant location in Manhattan at 206 East 63rd Street, but the businesses there kept failing, going under. Talese learned that there had been eight restaurants in all at that address. That's a worse record than usual, but most restaurants do, in fact, fail.
How astounding then that the Bright Star restaurant of Bessemer, Alabama, has been in continuous business for over one hundred years.
Usually, books like this one are privately published and given away to family and friends. But this book is more than a corporate history. It is also a quick sketch of the history of Bessemer and a look at Greek migration to the Birmingham area. In 1920, the 485 Greeks in and around Birmingham owned about 125 businesses. Greeks are famous for choosing self-employment over working for others. That is a commonplace. There's more money and freedom in owning your own business, however humble, and being the boss. In any case, these Greeks took a look at the coal mines, where miners were killed in ceiling collapses and explosions, and at the foundries, where workers slaved away in the summer near furnaces in unimaginable heat, and "discovered they were better suited for the restaurant and food service industries." Could there ever be clearer evidence of one ethnic group's superior perspicacity? Let the other fellows toil away in dangerous damp or fiery furnaces and then, when they leave work, serve them hamburgers and beer and wow them with the magic taste of oregano. Wily Odysseus himself would approve, be proud. Besides, "in Greece everybody knew how to cook; shepherds way up in the mountains had to cook for themselves."
The Bonduris family began the Bright Star in 1907 and, with delicious food and friendly service, kept it going ever since, through good times and bad. The years from 1907 to 1930 were mostly good. The Bright Star, however, made it through the Depression, too, when most industrial jobs in Bessemer had been lost. In those tough times the owners kept long hours and low prices and quietly gave food to the hungry. The reputation for generosity has never died. People will long remember those who shared.
The economy of Bessemer boomed along from '39 to the '70s and then became part of the spreading rust belt, and again the Bright Star survived. Before expansion, customers filled the place and lined up outside in heat or rain, for their turn to eat. It is downright amazing.
They also hoped to see what are in Alabama celebrities?football coaches and politicians a-plenty ate there. (There is no mention of writers, musicians, artists, actors, or other varieties of celebrity eating there, although I am sure some must have.)
There are many vintage photos, as well as biographical sketches of the members of the Bonduris, Koikos, and Cocoris families, and of some loyal employees?one of whom asked to be buried in her uniform, there are some interesting bits of trivia. The Bright Star sells 2,500 pounds of fish per week, and some evenings has sold 500 pounds of shrimp. An average weekday sees 150 lunch customers and weekend nights approximately 375. Thanksgiving Day there are 1,500 customers, and on Mother's Day 1,700. That's a lot of snapper.
There is a long section of appreciative remarks by customers. This can be skimmed, unless you are looking for your own name. Given the number of recipes for the favorite dishes?Greek-style snapper, spinach and rice casserole, lobster and crabmeat au gratin, Greek salad dressing, and so on, this volume may well end up shelved among your cookbooks.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.