Hungry customers get more than a home-cooked meal at donations-only restaurant

By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

Along the cafeteria-style food line at Drexell & Honeybee’s, you’ll see plenty of soul-satisfying Southern fare that changes from one day to the next, but two items are always on the menu of this donations-only restaurant in Brewton: pride and dignity.

That’s why you’ll have a hard time distinguishing between the patrons who can afford to drop money into the donations box for their meal and those who cannot. 

No cash register is present in the restaurant. The metal donations box is attached to the wall in a screened-off section where patrons can either drop in money, a hand-scrawled thank you note … or nothing at all. There are no prices on the menu, no suggested donations, no volunteer requirements for receiving free meals. “No strings attached,” says proprietor Lisa Thomas-McMillan.

“It’s all about two words: pride and dignity,” she says. “A lot of folks will die before they give that up.”

There’s no need for that at Drexell & Honeybee’s, located on 109 Lee Street in Brewton, but plenty of local folks think the food is to die for. “Best food in town!” enthuses a regular patron waiting in line one recent morning. “I come all the time.”

The parking lot across the street begins to fill well before the red neon open sign is switched on. Open 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, the restaurant feeds some 100 people daily from all walks of life. 

The restaurant is the culmination of Thomas-McMillan’s decades of feeding the hungry in the Brewton area — first by traveling 100 miles per day delivering hot breakfasts and food boxes to shut-ins, and then by starting a nonprofit — Carlisa, Inc. — to support a food bank. 

Lisa gained a partner in her journey eight years ago when she married Freddie McMillan, a retired U.S. Marine who knows his way around the kitchen. “I always cared about people,” he says. “I saw what she was doing and I thought, ‘That’s where I’m supposed to be.’”

Between Lisa, who spent most of her early years working in and around restaurants, and Freddie, whose grandmother taught him to cook, Drexell & Honeybee’s began to take shape.

 “We started talking about having a nice place that people could come in, sit down and eat a hot meal,” Lisa says. The dream came true when the couple bought the brick building, paid off the note as they renovated it and opened Drexell & Honeybee’s on March 26, 2018. The name of the restaurant is just something Lisa dreamed up about 30 ago, she says, when she once toyed with opening an ice cream shop.

‘Especially grateful’

Starting early in the morning, the couple works shoulder-to-shoulder in the small, efficient kitchen. 

“Freddie’s a good cook,” Lisa says proudly as she helps prepare the dishes and move trays of food from the stove to the glass-enclosed serving line out front. A volunteer shows up just before opening to help serve their guests.

Within 15 minutes of the restaurant opening, the tables begin to fill and it’s apparent that Drexell & Honeybee’s is more than just a lunch place. It’s a community gathering spot for young and old, rich and poor, spry and disabled. 

Patrons choose from entrees such as turkey and dressing, meatball-stuffed peppers, ribs, spaghetti and meat sauce, and sides like greens, mac and cheese and black-eyed peas. Each plate is loaded with an entrée, two sides, a cornbread fritter and dessert, and customers receive a bottle of water to drink.

On this day, the tables are filled with silver-haired retirees, business professionals, blue-collar workers, high school basketball players and an assortment of other men, women and children. Many of the customers know each other and enjoy chatting over their meals. Some patrons look worn and appear to be especially grateful for a good, hot meal. 

Although the attractively decorated restaurant looks and operates much as any family-owned commercial enterprise would, it doesn’t turn a profit, Lisa says.

Up to God

“Nobody gets paid,” she says. In fact, Lisa says, she and her husband devote half of their retirement income to keeping the restaurant going. The small church they attend — Zion Fountain AME Church — and the Greater Brewton Lion’s Club also regularly contribute to its operation. 

And, of course, some regular income comes from the donations box, though not nearly enough to cover the daily cost.

As for the rest, it’s up to God. “If anything is going bad, I know God is going to handle it for me,” Lisa says.