Located in the historic downtown Bessemer, Alabama, The Bright Star Restaurant is the oldest family-owned restaurant in the state. Under the management of a passionate and dedicated family, the restaurant has upheld its mission to serve the local community while preserving its own history for over a century.
On a quiet Monday morning, Frank Sinatra is heard throughout the building as children play from room to room. The restaurant is closed on Mondays to allow for deep cleaning, but it still feels like stepping back into the Jazz Age of America. Several hopeful visitors arrive at the door to be welcomed to return tomorrow.
On a weekend evening, the space transforms into a bustling city hotspot for birthdays and family gatherings. The smell of Greek-style tenderloin, snapper, and chicken wafts through the four dining rooms. The large waiting area is decorated with old photos and memorabilia that showcase the restaurant’s long history where well-dressed customers converse patiently, knowing they will soon be treated to delicious food and unbeatable service.
Keeping It in The Family
Tom Bonduris opened the doors in 1907 with the intent of serving the newly booming community. Bonduris first traveled to the United States from Peleta, Greece at only 14 years old to work under his uncle. Peter Bonduris set up a fruit stand in Manhattan after immigrating through Ellis Island in 1895, therefore creating the “Peleta Pipeline” into the U.S. Tom worked for two years before returning home to recover from a bout of pneumonia.
At the age of 18, Bonduris returned to the States, this time through Savannah, Ga. At the turn of the 20th century, Birmingham was an up and coming coal and iron ore mining city. There were around one hundred Greek residents living in Birmingham, most of which found work in the restaurant business to serve the weary and hungry industrial workers.
Bonduris took up work baking pies at a restaurant in Birmingham called “The Bright Star.” He held this job for only a year before making his move to a town on the outskirts of Birmingham called Bessemer. It was here that Bonduris would open “The Bright Star Café” on First Avenue and Twenty-First street.
Following in Bonduris’ footsteps, his brothers, Nick and John, as well as his cousin, Peter D. Koikos made their way to Bessemer. With the help of family members and a community that continued to boom, The Bright Star outgrew two locations in Bessemer before landing in the heart of the town that the business still inhabits today.
Third generation cousins of Tom Bonduris, James “Jimmy” B. Koikos and Nicholas “Nicky” B. Koikos took ownership of the business in 1966. Both are familiar faces to the restaurant’s customers as they have been known to greet and serve customers on a regular basis. Nicky has current ownership as Jimmy passed away in 2019. Nicky continues to carry a great presence in the restaurant with a smile and a kind spirit.
Evolution of the Menu
The Bright Star did not serve traditional Greek dishes at its opening. Instead, the restaurant granted the wishes of its customers at the time which consisted majorly of industrial workers. Donuts, coffee, and “meat and threes” were served 24 hours a day.
The Bonduris/Koikos founders did not have any formal training in cooking. All of their skills came from older family members teaching them in their homes. As the restaurant grew and the wishes of the local community changed, they hired chefs that were educated in their practice to accommodate the Greek style menu that they offer today.
“People want change. The demographics and the industry around here changes so we’ve had to adapt. We’re more of a destination restaurant now,” said Craig.
Favorite menu items among customers and staff members alike include the Greek-style seafood and tenderloin dishes. Fresh fish is delivered to the restaurant twice weekly from the Gulf of Mexico and is hand-cut at the restaurant.
Most notably, snapper dishes are considered the restaurant’s unique staple. The menu offers several different preparations of snapper including grilled, broiled, and fried dishes.
Staff and Customers
Due to the restaurant’s continued strong presence in the community, a large fraction of the restaurant’s customers are regular diners. Many have dinner every week and request their favorite server.
Many of the restaurant’s staff are long-term employees that have worked at the restaurant for over a decade, or in some cases, several decades. Management prioritizes creating an enjoyable work environment that staff members succeed in. “You’re only as successful as your employees are successful,” said Craig.
The Bright Star has a specified manual of guidelines for every staff position. Learning the Bright Star system is important, but treating customers with respect is the main priority. “It’s really as simple as treating people how you want to be treated and being treated like family because we’re a family-owned restaurant,” said Craig. “We have that personal touch that a chain restaurant can’t offer.”
Management and staff know that the experience of dining at The Bright Star is what makes the restaurant unique. Delicious quality food is important, but the friendly atmosphere is what keeps customers returning.
“We all work together and we all have the mindset that the people who come in are there for an experience,” said employee of 14 years, Linda Van Sweringen. “When you come to The Bright Star, you’re coming there to have a good time and we try to give you that.”
The Bright Star was always meant to be ran as a family restaurant and plans for the future intend to keep it as such.
Koikos and Bonduris family members fill various roles in the restaurant that are benefitted by their individual skill sets.
“[We have] a sense of pride in what we have accomplished and want to continue it on,” said
Stacey Cocoris Craig, niece of Jimmy and Nicky Koikos and minority partner of the Bright Star. “Because it is a unique thing to have a restaurant that’s 114 years old. It’s amazing really.”