( ENSPIRE Community Spotlight ) Pay-What-You-Want Restaurant on the Mississippi Gulf Coast Helps Community Members With Employment and Personal Success
ENSPIRE Contributor: Abby Ladner
From the outside, Starfish Cafe looks like an ordinary small-town restaurant. One step through the bright pink door will change your mind. Starfish Cafe, founded by Di Fillhart, serves food and the community at the same time by offering job training and life coaching for adults in the small coastal town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
Di Fillhart, who rejects the title of “owner” and calls herself “servant” instead, describes the Starfish Cafe program as experiential learning. Students, who are all 18 years and over, graduate from the 20-week program having gained experience in restaurant service and management while also receiving personalized life coaching and courses that meet their individual needs, such as anger management and financial literacy.
After Hurricane Katrina decimated the area in 2005, Di originally came to Bay St. Louis to help with disaster relief. However, after the town began to rebuild, Di did not feel that her work was complete. She recognized that the toll taken on the area was not just physical; residents of the area had been damaged emotionally as well.
“I came here after Hurricane Katrina, and everything was broken,” she says. “I watched it be built back up, but even after you rebuild something, there’s still fractures. What I’m working on here is healing fractures.”
The only thing missing from the Starfish Cafe menu is prices. The restaurant operates entirely on public donations, and patrons are asked to honor their “pay-what-you-want” model. All they ask for is a fair donation based on the food and service you receive, and all proceeds go towards the upkeep of the restaurant and student expenses.
This isn’t the only way Starfish Cafe supports its community. They have dedicated themselves to sourcing their food as locally as they can, and this includes the produce from their own front yard. The restaurant is surrounded by gardens of herbs and vegetables from which they gather their own fresh ingredients. If you listen closely, you can even hear the cafe’s smallest students at work: the rooftop bees. The cafe houses about 10,000 bees in their roof beehive in an attempt to revitalize the area’s declining bee population. They keep these bees happy the same way they keep their students happy—by giving them healthy food to eat, singing to them, and telling them every day how much they’re loved.
After closing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Starfish Cafe team doubled down on their mission to help those around them in need. They partnered with Feeding America to provide over 800 households with food and have begun assisting The King’s Kitchen, an outreach ministry group dedicated to feeding the area’s homeless population. In the meantime, they have been working on their new location, which will triple their capacity and allow for even more programs to be offered to Starfish Cafe students.
“We have learned that there is never too much love and compassion in the world,” says Di. “Helping others to keep walking forward without looking backward is one key to unlock your future. Whenever an obstacle appears on the path of life, make it a stepping stone to success! We hope that we are leading the greater community to be more compassionate, more aware of the needs of others, and to find unique solutions to unexpected circumstances. Over the past eight years, we have been blessed, as the community not only gathers at Starfish. They join hands to help others in the community.”
Before leaving, everyone that eats at Starfish Cafe is handed a small bag of seeds. Di asks her patrons to spread these “seeds of change,” an action that perfectly sums up their mission. While not each and every person in need will find their way inside Starfish Cafe, everyone who leaves will do so with the desire to make their difference, no matter how small. With these parting instructions, Starfish Cafe fosters an environment in which caring for each other is at the center of the community and spreads their mission far beyond their walls, planting the seeds of change with no desire to reap what they sow.