Story by Kristine Alford
When you walk into Drexel & Honeybee’s, the pay-what-you-can restaurant in Brewton, AL, what you have in your pockets doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters to the owner, Lisa Thomas McMillan, is that when you walk out, you’re full.
Lisa’s mission to feed the hungry began in 1995 when she started to notice elderly people who were having problems paying for their utilities, medicine, and food. Looking for a way to help, she began preparing several breakfasts each morning and would deliver them, sometimes along with groceries, to those who couldn’t afford to eat.
Lisa’s passion for feeding those in need continued to grow, so when she found out there were students going hungry at the Local Jefferson Community College campus (now Coastal Community College), she stepped up to help. “Some of the students were getting their meals from vending machines, and a lot of them were really hungry. Many of these kids are from low-income families and just can’t afford to eat while going to school.” says Lisa. She started cooking meals at the student center for the long line of hungry students each day.
Throughout her work, Lisa’s dream was to open a place of her own. “I always said if I could get enough money, I would open up a restaurant where people could come in, sit down, and have a good meal at a nice place,” says Lisa. “So when I got married 8 years ago, I told this to my husband, and together we saved enough money to buy a building and fix it up.”
When Drexel & Honeybee’s opened on Lee Street, there was no cash register in sight. Instead, there was a donation box sitting in the restaurant. “I don’t want to know who pays or what they pay, because I want everyone to feel equal here,” says Lisa. “Of course people abuse it, but I don’t care because for the ones who aren’t abusing it and really need it, it’s worth it.” Although there are many people who are unable to place money in the donation box, there are others who donate a larger amount so the restaurant can keep serving those in need. Fortunately, the money left in the donation box each day is enough to cover the cost of the restaurant to remain open, pay the staff members, and buy a portion of the food that’s cooked each day. The rest of the food is donated by local farms.
Lisa doesn’t just want to serve people food though– she wants to serve them good food. She and her husband arrive at the restaurant at 6:00 most mornings to begin cooking food from scratch – pulled pork, baked chicken, yellow rice, fresh greens, mac and cheese, bread pudding, banana nut bread, and more. When the doors open at 11:00, they serve about 100 lunches to students, veterans, the elderly, and anyone else who is hungry. A typical meal at Drexel & Honeybee’s consists of a meat, two sides, dessert, bread, and tea, and Lisa herself walks around to fill up the glasses of tea when they get low. She also offers seconds to every person who finishes his or her meal. When lunch ends at 1:00, the McMillans, along with a couple of staff members, stay to clean, wash dishes, and prep for the next day before leaving around 4:00.
“The long hours are worth it,” says Lisa. “One day, we got a note that said ‘If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have had anything to eat today.’ The note was wrapped around a quarter. Another time, A family or 4 came into the restaurant and told me that without this, they wouldn’t have anything to eat.” Lisa says she’s always humbled by people’s words of gratitude. “You can’t look at people and tell if they’re hungry, but people are hungry and I just want to be able to feed them.”
In addition to feeding the hungry, Lisa serves the cause in other ways. In 2005, she participated in a walk in Washington to raise awareness for hunger, and she recently wrote a book about her experience of helping people, “Living Fulfilled: The Infectious Joy of Serving Others.” All the proceeds from her book go into the restaurant.
Recently, Drexel & Honeybee’s was selected as the Alabama finalist for Reader’s Digest Nicest Place in America. This annual award recognizes those who provide kindness and love to their communities. If you’d like to show your support, please follow the link below. You can vote up to one time per day until July 21st.