Customers at Drexell & Honeybee’s, a soul food restaurant in Alabama, can enjoy typical southern dishes such as cornbread, cobblers, potato salad, fried chicken and collard greens. However, what’s not so typical about the experience is the price of the meal.
Drexell & Honeybee’s is a donations-only restaurant, where the customer determines how much—and if—they will leave a monetary donation.
The restaurant is open every Tuesday through Friday from 11 am to 1 pm, and about 100 people eat there daily. All of the donations go back into serving food and “feeding hungry people.”
“When you are done with your meal, you simply leave whatever you can – a handful of coins, a generous donation, a hand-written note, or a heartfelt ‘Thank You,'” the restaurant’s website says. “But when you leave, you do so with a full stomach, a full heart, and the understanding that you are loved and worthy of love.
“You can find soul food all over Alabama. But you won’t find a meal that fills you up quite like this one.”
Owners Freddie and Lisa Thomas-McMillan founded the restaurant merely to serve others in the community. The business has no cash register or prices, ensuring that “all are welcome” and “everybody eats” who walks through the door.
“If you go to that [donation] box over there and you ain’t got one red cent, no one will ever know,” Lisa said in a video interview with It’s a Southern Thing.
The restaurant has no set menu on a day-to-day basis, but most things are made from scratch. Drexell & Honeybee’s has no staff other than Lisa and Freddie. Interested volunteers need to speak to Lisa directly, as “we don’t ask people to work before they eat.”
The War on Hunger
After helping an elderly woman who couldn’t afford her $12 grocery bill, a spark was lit in Lisa to feed her community. Lisa asked the woman if others were in her situation, so the senior citizen wrote a list of 27 other elderly people who were also struggling. This led Lisa to prepare breakfast for them every morning before heading to her job as an insurance agent.
“I don’t know what made me do it, but I was going to help these folks,” she told The Bitter Southerner.
Eventually she opened a restaurant, charging three dollars per meal. However, she soon realised that she needed non-profit status to have the impact she desired without draining her pockets in the process.
“Of course, I was making no money,” she said. “That was okay by me, except for the fact that I had rent and utilities to pay, and food costs kept rising.”
She closed the restaurant and opened a non-profit organisation, a food bank named Carlisa, Inc. after a friend who had passed away. At the time, she would prepare about 100 meals a day and delivered them throughout the community.
In 2003, she wrote a letter to Alabama Governor Bob Riley to explain the problems with hunger in her community. She walked 105 miles to Montgomery to hand-deliver it. Two years later, she wrote a similar letter to President George W Bush. She walked 900 miles to Washington, DC, over 54 days to deliver that letter. Although she didn’t get to meet either politician, the vision for the present-day version of Drexell & Honeybee’s, which now operates under the Carlisa food bank, started to form.
At the time, she had recently accepted a job at the student centre of a local community college. While the school allowed her to use the kitchen facilities to make meals for senior citizens, she realised that a lot of the students were going without food, as well.
“These students were hungry; they were doing without to pay for school and books,” she recalled.
After establishing a “no cash, no problem” policy with her students, Lisa was inspired to re-open her restaurant with a new policy: “It would feed anyone and everyone for whatever they could afford to pay, even if they had not a penny.”
The Rebirth of Drexell & Honeybee’s
In March 2018, the restaurant re-opened its doors after Lisa and Freddie bought and transformed its current location, using credit cards, some of Freddie’s Marine Corps pension and their own blood, sweat and tears.
“I’ve learned the joy you get when you serve others,” Lisa explained. “And don’t mistake it, joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is fleeting; joy is something down in your soul.”
The clientele spans a wide range of ages, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds and even locations, as many people visit from neighboring towns. Some customers are merely happy to have access to a delicious home-cooked meal, whereas others might not eat otherwise.
“This is helpful for us, but for others, it’s essential,” Drake, a college student, told The Bitter Southerner. “There are people who would go completely hungry without it.”
“This is all good,” Devin, Drake’s friend, added. “Lisa could be cooking this and make real money, but her heart is for this.”
After the restaurant closed for the day, Lisa was asked if she’d ever consider adding suggested prices to the menu.
“No, no. I will not do that,” she said. “Let’s say you are poor and hungry, and you’d really like a ham sandwich, and it says suggested price, $6.99. I actually don’t think you’re going to come in here at all because you don’t want to be spotted saying, ‘I can’t pay that.’ You can run people off with that.
“Some people who operate some of the other restaurants might not understand because they have never been poor, but I have been. I know the pride of the working poor.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Drexell & Honeybee’s shifted its business model to ensure the community would continue to have access to a good meal.
“The end of June, we figured out a way to do to-go orders and keep everyone safe,” Lisa told Because of Them We Can. “It is working out very well, and we feel so proud to be able to do what we do, with COVID-19 affecting so many people.
“As you can imagine, donations are down, but we will continue to try and be of service to all the people that come to our door.”