/Starfish Cafe Five years of serving fresh food and faith in Bay St Louis

Starfish Cafe Five years of serving fresh food and faith in Bay St Louis

Fillhart, a Pennsylvanian, said that Fillhart and Fillhart laid their hands on the map. Fillhart said that Fillhart was a Pennsylvania native. A chance encounter led to Fillhart and Fillhart making a stop in Baton Rouge in September. The town, which was home to about 11287 people at the time, is known as “The Bay” by Gulf Coast residents. It was devastated by hurricane Katrina’s almost 30-foot storm surge. Fillhart described the storm as “a huge shock” when she stepped into it. “I had lived in Florida’s west coast for 10 years and had been evacuated because of hurricanes. But, you always come back. You just cleaned up the mess, sand, and water. When we reached the interstate, I still have the photo of the devastation we saw. Di wanted to rebuild. She and her fellow missionaries arrived on the coast to help rebuild the area. She said, “You might read it on greeting cards. The story is about an old man walking along the shore, picking up a starfish and throwing it into the sea after a very bad storm. A young man approaches him and asks, “Old man, why are you doing this?” The old man walks towards him and asks, “Old man, why are you doing that?” Di was actually on a longer journey than the one she took from New York City to the Gulf Coast to aid in hurricane cleanup. Starfish Cafe was founded in June 2013 in a former home on Main Street in Bay St. Louis. It is the beginning of a seven-year-long journey. A small dining room can accommodate around 35 people, who will be sharing their stories and experiences with the servers. Di describes the restaurant as a place where “bouncing back” and returning to the sea are possible through hands-on experience and job skills training. This helps alleviate unemployment and reduces the likelihood of students coming into contact with law enforcement. Prospective students aged 18 or older can now apply for an eight- to 20-week program at no cost. The curriculum begins with anger management courses that teach students how to manage their emotions and those of others. You can see how important this is in the kitchen if you watch a lot of television and cooking shows. She said that they begin there. The students then continue on to other life skills courses such as financial literacy, resiliency training (learning to recover from stress), and application and interview preparation. Students take part in the cooking portion of the program from the back. Fillhart and Zachary Fillhart, Starfish Cafe executive chefs, share their expertise in the kitchen. Their students often get to work with them one-on-one, where they demonstrate knife skills, how you can make soups, sauces, and dressings from scratch, and how to make staple Starfish Cafe dishes. They even give credit to some of their early students for creating the recipes that became iconic menu items in the first five years. Di says that only 30 percent of her graduates choose to pursue a culinary career. Others don’t go to school because they realize they don’t want to work in the kitchen. The externship is available to those who decide to finish the program. Starfish students who have interned at local restaurants and casinos in the coast have been hired. Each graduate is awarded $200 to buy work clothes, and $100 per week to put in the work incentive account. After graduation, the funds are disbursed to the graduate. The funds are then disbursed to the graduate one year after graduation. This is something Di believes can help “really get their feet on the ground.” Starfish Cafe’s student program has been in operation since 2013. 64 students aged 17-61 applied. Fivety-three people have enrolled and 31% of those 53 have graduated. She said that seventeen-year-olds under the age of 17 can apply for admission with court or guardian permission. Elise Deano is a former Hancock County Youth Court Referee, and currently a Harrison County Court Judge candidate. She has guided a few unemployed parents below the age of 30, to the Starfish Cafe job training program. The average student age is 26. Deano stated that many of the parents in court were difficult to hire or at risk. They were incarcerated or had drug and alcohol problems in the past. Starfish is used a lot to help them get back on their feet.” The women claim that their love stems from a mutual desire to give second chances. Deano stated, “I have come to the realization we try to sell so much people on what I call American dream.” It’s almost like trying to sell Mars property to others when we try to sell this to people. They don’t even know what it is. They have never witnessed it. It’s not right. We are not doing it right as a nation. This is because we must paint a picture of that. It’s so foreign to them because they don’t have success stories in their lives. Starfish is different. They understand that the population we are dealing with is more susceptible to making mistakes, so let’s be patient. Let’s make it work for everyone.” Di Fillhart explains the story of Starfish Cafe. She says that Fillhart was watching her vision come to life. At the same time, Tobias Collins, a man called Toby, was trying to stop Fillhart’s life from falling apart. It was 2012. Di had just purchased a Main Street building that had survived Katrina. However, seven years later, it still needed to be demolished. Fillhart stated that the building still had Katrina debris and other damage. Fillhart said, “Well, I don’t really have much money.” Actually, I don’t actually have any money. But I do have faith. And I have a lot sweat. Collins was one of those volunteers. Collins learned about the restaurant soon to open two months after his arrest. Fillhart needed help. Collins had to be careful. Collins spent his time trimming grass, pulling weeds and gardening. He also helped to build the kitchen and create the menu. Collins was arrested in Mississippi for conspiracy to traffic drug, a crime that can land Collins in prison for up to one year. He was held in Harrison County jail for two weeks until his mother allowed him to be released. Collins stated that he was still dealing with Hurricane Katrina and his mom had diabetes. She didn’t work too hard. Although I wasn’t the head or the sole breadwinner of the household, I was trying to make some money for my own purposes. I was watching movies that featured drug dealers making millions of money and thought that this was what I needed to do in order to make my own money. “I was trying to make that life my own.” Collins’ experience in unemployment is not unusual for Gulf Coast residents. Fillhart reported that 18% of Starfish Cafe applicants have been convicted or arrested for crimes, and that 63 percent students were unemployed at the time they applied. In 2004, Hancock County had a five percent unemployment rate. This was the year prior to Hurricane Katrina. The county’s unemployment rate climbed more than twice to 10.8 percent in 2005 from the previous year. The trend was identical in Harrison County, which is one of three counties on the coast. The state’s most eastern county, Jackson County, which is also home to Ingalls Shipbuilding (the state’s largest private employer), saw its unemployment rate increase from 5.8 percent to 9.9 percent between 2004 and 2005. It took only a few years for Jackson to be able achieve a lower unemployment rate than its 2004 annual average. The county’s average annual unemployment rate was 5.5% in 2007. 13 years after Katrina’s destruction, Harrison and Hancock counties did not have the same success rate in reducing unemployment. Contrary to popular belief, tourism-driven economic viability is not a Coast phenomenon. The three coasties have middling employment numbers, with Hancock Harrison and Jackson ranking Nos. There are 42, 27, and 18 counties with the highest unemployment rates, respectively. Collins was eventually cleared of all charges. Collins remained motivated and continued to follow the student training program. Collins’s testimony was even supported by Di, who testified for him, assuring that he was productive and not in trouble. Collins stated, “It was quite surprising.” Collins said that her son was also present to assist me in the event of my conviction. They were there to help me. It is unlikely that many people in my locality would do this. They wouldn’t testify for you. They would only wish you the very best and hope that you return home.” Collins spent 7 months working as a fry cook and dish washer at 200 North Beach, which is just one block from Starfish Cafe. Di informed Collins that Hollywood Casino was interested and wanted to interview him. He was offered the job and worked as a chef there for more than two years. Collins lost his mom to diabetes during his time at the casino. Collins knew that he would eventually leave Mississippi and all the hardships he had endured there. He moved to Houston in May 2016. He purchased his first car and an apartment. He was quickly hired as a chef for the American Express platinum card members lounge at George Bush International Airport. He continues to work there. He said that Di and Zac taught him a lot about financial independence and consistency. Donations from local foundations and other organizations and sponsors all fund the $4,000 tuition and work incentive accounts for Starfish students. The majority of expenses are covered by the revenue generated from the restaurant, which is pay-what you want. Di removed the prices from the Starfish Cafe’s “unique menu” in 2015, just two years after it opened. Di stated that the restaurant’s market niche was initially for those who were not able to afford traditional restaurants. They may be suffering from diabetes. They might need to avoid gluten. They might need to follow a calorie-reduced eating plan …” Although there are many delicious dishes at Starfish Cafe, customers cannot have their food fried. Di stated that they don’t have a fryer. “If we fry something, it’s for a one-time occasion or for a special meal. We don’t own a traditional fryer. Our food is not fried. We use a variety of cooking methods, including broiling, grilling, and baking. We use a lot fresh items.” The Starfish Cafe doesn’t have a walk-in cooler and buys local fresh food. It also regularly receives fresh fruits, vegetables, and other local produce from the community. Zac stated, “One thing that sets us apart is that we don’t have to run out of food.” It’s a crazy idea that we make 98 per cent of our menu from scratch. We only source the best ingredients, so if I don’t have it that day, I get it. Some customers get angry, especially if they’re first-time visitors and are looking for a specific dish. Di stated that they try to use 100 per cent of all the ingredients that come in. This means that the same vegetable could be used in three different dishes. Zac, the executive chef hopes to dispel the myth that healthy food doesn’t taste good. He starts with his students. Zac recalls that Toby Collins had once expressed a deep dislike for green beans after he only had canned. “I told Toby that it wasn’t a green bean. It is a green bean but there is a difference between fresh and processed food.” Zac recalls. It’s a green bean, but there’s a difference between fresh food and processed food.” Zac recalls. Di is adamant that she will not allow the establishment of menu prices again after her success with pay-what you want. Her customers have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s lives and provide an opportunity to those who might not be able to afford to eat at a restaurant. Di stated, “You have students who come in that don’t look at you in the eyes when they start and look down when it comes to talking.” They’re happy to bring food from the kitchen and are able to talk to you eye-to-eye. That should be a reality for every parent. I cannot go back to where it was. Whatever the future holds, it will hold.” To donate, view menu items and learn more about the Starfish Cafe visit www.starfishcafebsl.com. To support this important work, you can make a regular donation to Starfish Cafe today as part of the Spring Member Drive.