By Stephanie Snodgrass
Brewton couple nourish bodies and souls at pay-as-you-can eatery
Lisa Thomas-McMillan and her husband, Freddie, are feeding the souls – and stomachs – of those in need, all for free at their Brewton restaurant, Drexel & Honeybee’s.
In Escambia County, the couple is well known for meeting the hunger needs of their community, with Lisa as the driving force through their non-profit, Carlisa, Inc. In their mission, they’ve fed college students, veterans, those at Thanksgiving and Christmas and any person in need. And they’ve never asked for a dime.
Lisa began campaigning for the hungry in 1995.
“People ask us all the time, ‘Why do you do it?’” Lisa says. “I can honestly say, it’s because God led us here.”
In 1995, Lisa was a cashier at the local Walmart when she ran into a woman having food problems. The conversation revealed 25 others in similar situations.
“That next morning, I started cooking 26 breakfasts and delivering them each morning,” Lisa says. “In my house, in my kitchen. I cooked, and it started something in me. I enjoyed it, and I realized that when you serve people, you feel good. I love that.”
From there, the mission grew. While visiting the local campus of Jefferson Davis Community College (now Coastal Alabama), she saw two students pooling change to buy food from the vending machines. Before long, Lisa was on site, serving up hot Sunday-style meals for students for donations.
For more than 10 years, she used community donations to stock the kitchen’s pantry, supplementing with purchases made from her own pocket.
In 2005, she walked to Washington to gain support for her campaign. She has also authored a book, Living Fulfilled: The Infectious Joy of Serving Others, which relates her journey to help others and is available on Amazon. And as if that wasn’t enough, she added free meals for veterans on Veterans Day and free community lunches on Thanksgiving and Christmas days.
“At the college, in my mind, I said, ‘I’d love to own a restaurant where people would pay what they could,’ but of course, I didn’t have any money,” she says. “But, God always provides.
“The thing about hunger is, you don’t know who’s going hungry,” she says. “You can’t see it on their face. You don’t know what’s in someone’s cabinet, or more importantly, what’s not.
“If you’re down and out and struggling, coming to a decent place and enjoying a hot meal can lift your spirit,” Lisa says. “It makes that person feel better about themselves. That’s what we do. Sit down here and no one cares what’s in your wallet. We want you to leave full – full of good food and good company.”
Serving it up
When Lisa heard about rock star Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen, the New Jersey community restaurant where diners can donate or volunteer to cover the cost of their meal, she found the blueprint for her Brewton location.
“I went on his website to see what I could learn, because I knew we could do it (in Brewton); I just knew it,” Lisa says. “We wanted it so bad, and we did it. We’re still working out the kinks, but we’ll get it down.”
It was 2016 when the no-pay restaurant idea took seed. This March, it bloomed inside the Lee Street location Lisa found while scouting locations for the community Thanksgiving meal. It took a year and a half to pay the $45,000 note. Then with a $20,000 grant from the Brewton City Council and “my Visa card,” the couple undertook the massive renovations.
“My husband said we had to get the building paid for before we started the renovations,” she says. “We did. It is everything I dreamed of. It’s a nice building and a nice place for people to come and eat. Anyone – no matter of their ability to pay – can eat at our table.”
And eat they do, enjoying a daily meat-and-three fare of oven-fried chicken, meatloaf, chicken pot pie, hamburger steak, BBQ ribs, fresh vegetables, rice, macaroni and cheese and more.
No cash, no problem
There are no prices posted in the building. Volunteers staff the restaurant and donated food – everything from canned vegetables and garden bounty to wares purchased from local grocery stores – fill plates. When it comes time to pay, diners are directed to a curtained area equipped only with a donation box.
“If you can give, give; if you can’t, don’t – we don’t care,” Lisa says. “That’s between you and God. We don’t worry about that. Freddie said we’re going to keep this restaurant going. We’re going to feed people. Period. We did have a problem with people hearing when you dropped change in the box, but a little fabric in the bottom of the box fixed that.”
To help with costs, the McMillans also accept tax-deductible donations through their non-profit, Carlisa, Inc.
“There is a hunger need in every community,” Lisa says. “Between March and September, we provided 12,200 meals. That’s a lot of food. We only ran out once. The hours are long; the cost is high, but it’s a calling for us. The notes people leave in our box tell us how much a need there is.
“I got one the other day that said, ‘Because of you, a family of four was able to eat today,’” she says. “That’s worth a million dollars to me – the notes like that. I’ve had people come in and say they only had $2. I made her keep that $2, but she left full. The stories like that, that means it’s a wonderful mission.
“My life is full. I get up at 5:30 a.m. I don’t hesitate, grumble that I don’t want to do it. I jump out of that bed, get ready and get on down here. I work until about 3:30 p.m. and know that it’s been a good day.
“I thank God that He gave me the chance, the strength and no ailments to be part of all the blessings He bestows when you reach out to help others,” she says. “This is a community thing. Everyone helps. Without our donations and our volunteers, we couldn’t make it. But we know it’s all worth it in the end.”
Drexel & Honeybee’s is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. and is located at 109 Lee St., Brewton.