While living in California, Lisa Thomas-McMillan passed a cute little shop that was closed, and she thought to herself that the space would make a nice ice cream parlor. She stood there contemplating its name, even though she didn’t have the ability nor a quarter to make it happen. She professed that if she’d ever open a restaurant, she would call it Drexell and Honeybee’s.
Back in her hometown, Thomas-McMillan started a food bank to assist elderly people who had to choose between purchasing medicine or food. She and her husband cooked meals in their home each day and distributed them. Though deeply appreciative, one of the recipients said she wished she could go to a restaurant and hang out sometimes. Thomas-McMillan was affected by that statement, and thought about how great it would be to go to a restaurant and not have to worry about what it costs.
She discussed the concept with her husband, Freddie, and he said, "Let’s find a location and maybe we can do that." It took them a couple of years to find a building, but they finally bought one and made sacrifices to pay it off. Then, they completed most of the remodeling themselves, paying for it using their credit cards.
On March 26, 2018, the couple’s dream became a reality. Lisa and Freddie Thomas-McMillan opened Drexell and Honeybee’s Donations Only Restaurant in Brewton, Alabama – about an hour from Pensacola, Florida. Anybody can dine there, and people donate what they want, no strings attached.
The restaurant doesn't have a cash register or a credit card reader on the premises. "It's just the joy of our life right now. It gives people the opportunity to enjoy a meal and to fellowship with each other without having to worry about paying."
Donations keep the restaurant afloat, but they also receive funding from a local foundation. Drexell and Honeybee’s runs on the work of volunteers only – no employees. Area farmers also donate items such as greens, potatoes, and corn.
The Thomas-McMillans decided early on that, no matter what happened, they wouldn't close the restaurant. They agreed to give up half of their retirement to keep it running. "That’s what we did," said Thomas-McMillan.
It's just the joy of our life right now. It gives people the opportunity to enjoy a meal and to fellowship with each other without having to worry about paying.
"It’s a very nice restaurant," added Thomas-McMillan. She wanted to create a space nice enough for anyone, but not intimidating for those who felt like it was too posh for them.
Right now, Drexell & Honeybee’s feeds about 400 people a week from various backgrounds, operating three days a week during lunchtime. The Thomas-McMillans cook 90 percent of the food themselves, mostly from scratch, planning the menu based on what they have on hand or what’s on sale at their local supermarket. They mainly serve comfort Southern foods like fresh greens, ribs, and chicken and dressing, but the selections change daily.
Customers can choose from three different meats, six vegetables, six desserts, and a salad bar, plus a side of cornbread and drinks. The most popular dishes are the meatloaf, bread pudding, and macaroni and cheese. Diners also love the chicken and dumplings.
The Thomas-McMillans also offer meals on special occasions such as Veterans' Day, Christmas, and Thanksgiving.
Handling the Pandemic
Though they’re not a traditional restaurant, the Thomas-McMillans did have to pivot their business this year, as most other restaurants have done. When the governor called for restaurants to shut down, Drexell and Honeybee’s closed temporarily. The Thomas-McMillans had to develop a plan to keep everyone safe.
When they reopened initially, they allowed people to come inside the restaurant and wait at the front, where each customer would receive one predetermined meal in a to-go box.
Since some guests didn’t want to wear a mask, they ceased operations again to come up with an alternative. The owners created an opening in the restaurant’s front door to hand people their food, which has worked well.
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The restaurant also invested in a steamer that kills germs on surfaces, and they stocked up on hand sanitizer and cleaners. They also require all volunteers to wear gloves and masks.
The restaurant plans to resume dine-in services whenever they can, all depending on what happens with the pandemic and the related government restrictions.
If you want to support the Drexell and Honeybees mission, they accept donations on their website or by mail.