At Drexell & Honeybee’s restaurant in Brewton, the scratch-cooked food it serves does not carry a price tag. No bill is presented at the end.
You pay what you can in cash (the restaurant doesn’t have a card reader either). Or pay nothing at all. Nobody knows, because the tin contribution box is behind a curtain, and it’s padded to even muffle any sound coins might make.
“We wanted a restaurant that anybody could come in and whether they had money or not, it didn’t matter,” says Lisa Thomas, who runs the restaurant with her husband, Freddie McMillan. “Anybody can come in and nobody knows what nobody puts into that box, unless you tell them.”
Almost 24 percent of Brewton’s 5,400 residents live in poverty, and Thomas estimates about a quarter of her customers are unable to pay anything, while others can only afford nominal contributions.
Open since 2018, Drexell and Honeybee’s is a mission for McMillan and Thomas, who help subsidize the restaurant from retirement income.
A longtime advocate for equality in access to food, Thomas has made long marches to draw attention to the cause, has written a book, “Living Fulfilled: The Infectious Joy of Feeding Others,” and started a non-profit food bank, Carlisa, Inc.
“At one point in my life, I was hungry,” Thomas says. “What a lonely feeling it is. It’s not an experience I would want anyone else to have to go through.”
Drexell and Honeybee’s also feeds another basic human need, providing the joy and dignity that comes with being able to go out to a restaurant and experience eating food that someone else cooked purely for your enjoyment.
“We want a place where if you’re a millionaire you can come in and sit down and say, ‘Wow, this place is OK,’” Thomas says. “And if you didn’t have one red cent you could come in and sit down and say, ‘Here I am. I don’t have a penny in my name but I can sit down in this really nice restaurant and enjoy a good, home-cooked meal.’”
Thomas arrives at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesdays through Thursdays, when the restaurant is open for lunch only (Friday service will resume soon). She gets three ovens going and fills the stove with pots and pans as she prepares meats and vegetables like pork chops, meatloaf, hash brown casserole, cabbage, eggrolls, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, and fried okra for the buffet.
Plates include a meat, two sides, cornbread, dessert, and a drink. If you’re still hungry afterward, just jump back in line.
The community pitches in so many ways, Thomas says. She’s found crisp $100 bills in the collection box. Neighbors recently raised a substantial part of the cost of replacing the restaurant roof. Volunteer groups from area businesses and churches pitch in during service. Farmers provide produce; other locals bring big boxes of supplies.
Thomas says it’s rewarding when people come to her for advice on how to open their own pay-what-you-can restaurants to help feed their own communities.
“Training them is the greatest joy in the world and God has granted me this joy,” she says.
At ages 69 and 71 respectively, Thomas and McMillan have no thoughts of showing down. She says she still bounds out of bed each morning before dawn, ready to serve.
“It’s my calling, my mission,” she says. “I’m going to do it until God sits me down. And I don’t see that happening no time soon.”
(Courtesy of SoulGrown)