Diana "Di" Fillhart prepares food in the kitchen of Starfish Cafe.
Diana “Di” Fillhart prepares food in the kitchen of Starfish Cafe.

The day after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast,  Diana “Di” Fillhart and a fellow PNEUMA— Winds of Hope missionary member loaded up a pickup truck and adjoined trailer with food, water, clothing, cleaning products and medical supplies and set out from Bushwick, Brooklyn.

“We laid our hands on the map and said, ‘Today would be a really good day for God to tell us where we’re headed,’” said Fillhart, a Pennsylvania native.

After a mid-September stop in Baton Rouge and a chance run-in, an old friend suggested that they go to Bay St. Louis. Known to Gulf Coast locals as “The Bay,” the town of about 11,287 at the time, was taken under by Katrina’s nearly 30-foot storm surge and devastated by 120 mile per hour winds.

“Stepping into it was huge,” Fillhart said of the storm. “I had lived on the west coast of Florida for 10 years, and I had been evacuated for hurricanes. But, you always come back. There was a lot of sand and a lot of mess and a lot of water, and you just cleaned it up. But when we got off the interstate — and I still have the picture of what we saw, which was just total devastation — there was just nothing left.”

Di wanted to help rebuild. After arriving on the muddy, ravaged coast, she and her fellow missionaries began describing their work as “Operation Starfish,” after the parable.

She says: “You may read it on greeting cards. It’s about the old man walking along the beach and he picks up the starfish and he throws it back into the sea after a really bad storm. And a young man walks towards him and says, ‘Old man why are you doing that? Look at all these starfish on the beach.’ And the old man looks at him and says, ‘It’s going to make a difference to this one.’ So, he throws them back one by one.”

Starfish Café more than a restaurant

Although Di didn’t know it at the time, she had actually embarked on a much longer trek than the road trip from New York City to the Gulf Coast to help with hurricane cleanup.

The Starfish Cafe is located on Main Street in downtown Bay St. Louis.

In fact, her arrival in Mississippi marked the first step on a seven-year-long journey that led to the founding of Starfish Cafe in June 2013, located in a former house on Main Street in downtown Bay St. Louis.

On a given weekday at lunch or dinnertime in the summer, you’ll find about 35 patrons from near and far dining in the small dining room — having friendly conversations with servers about life’s highs and lows.

The restaurant is a place, Di says, “where bouncing back and returning to the sea of life are accomplished through hands on experiential life and restaurant job skill training,” helping alleviate unemployment and reducing the chances of students encountering law enforcement.

Today, prospective students ages 18 and older can apply to complete an eight to 20 week program at no expense to them. The curriculum starts with anger management courses, teaching students emotional balance and how to handle their emotions and the emotions of others.

“If you watch much television and cooking shows, you can see that that’s much needed in the kitchen. So they start there,” she said.

Students then move forward with other life skill courses, such as resiliency training (learning how to healthily recover from stress), financial literacy and application and interview preparation.

In the back of the house, students participate in the culinary portion of the program. Fillhart and her son, Zachary “Zac” Fillhart, Starfish Cafe executive chef, share their knowledge of the kitchen. They often work one-on-one with their students, demonstrating knife skills, how to prepare soups, sauces and dressings from scratch and how to create staple Starfish Cafe dishes. The two even credit some early students with developing their own recipes that have become classic menu items during the restaurant’s first five years.

Starfish Cafe Executive Chef Zachary “Zac” Fillhart shares his cooking skills with former student Chantel High.

According to Di, only about 30 percent of her students pursue a culinary track upon graduating, and some don’t graduate at all because they eventually realize they don’t want to be in the kitchen. Those who do decide to complete the program are given the opportunity to participate in an externship during the last two weeks of course work. Coastal casinos and local restaurants have hired every Starfish student that has interned with them.

Not only does each graduate receive $200 upon graduation to purchase work clothes and other essentials, but — as long as the graduate continues to work or volunteer with his or her employer for at least six months for 25 hours each week post graduation — $100 a week is placed in his or her work incentive account. The funds are then disbursed to the graduate the year following graduation. It’s something that Di says can “really get their feet off the ground.”

As of June 2018, 64 people ages 17 to 61 have applied for Starfish Cafe’s student training program since it launched in 2013. Fifty-three people have actually enrolled, and 31 percent of those 53 have graduated. Seventeen-year-olds can apply with guardian or court permission, she said.

Elise Deano, former Hancock County Youth Court Referee and  current Harrison County Court Judge candidate, has steered a handful of unemployed parents under the age of 30 to the Starfish Cafe job-training program, where the average age of students is 26.

“A lot of the parents in the court were hard to employ or were at risk,” Deano said. They had previous drug problems or incarceration issues. And a lot of times, we use Starfish to get them back on their feet.”

The women say their relationship is born out of a shared interest of providing second chances.

“I’ve come to the realization that we try to sell so many people on what I call the American dream,” Deano said. “When we’re trying to sell that to some people, it’s like we’re trying to sell property on Mars. They don’t know what it looks like. They’ve never seen it happen. We really aren’t doing it right. As a nation we’re not doing it right, because we have to paint a picture of what that looks like.

“It’s that foreign to those people, because they don’t have role models in their lives that have succeeded. That’s where Starfish is different. They know that we’re dealing with a population that is more likely to screw up, so let’s be patient with that. And let’s do what we can to make that work for everybody.”

Take a look inside the restaurant and hear Di Fillhart tell the story of Starfish Cafe in her own words:

YouTube video

Sweat, faith and a life unraveling

Around the time Fillhart was seeing her vision for Starfish Cafe come to life, a man named Tobias “Toby” Collins was trying to keep his from unraveling.

It was 2012 and Di had just acquired a building on Main Street that survived Katrina but,  seven years after the storm, it had yet to be gutted.

“It still had Katrina mud in it and everything,” Fillhart said. “And I told them, ‘Well I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t have any money actually. But I have a lot of faith. And I have a lot of sweat.’ So that’s how we started.”

Volunteers breathed new life into the rented building, providing and paying for necessities such as furniture, air conditioning and plumbing. One of those volunteers was Collins. About two months after his arrest, Collins found out about the restaurant that was soon to be opened. Fillhart needed the help. And Collins needed to stay out of trouble. He spent his time cutting grass, pulling weeds, gardening, building the kitchen and helping create the menu.

Collins’ legal woes started shortly after he graduated from Bay St. Louis High School in 2011, when he was arrested for conspiracy to traffic drugs, a crime punishable with up to life in prison in Mississippi. He spent two weeks sitting in the Harrison County jail until his mother was able to bail him out.

Tobias “Toby” Collins and his mother Tabitha pose for a picture on the day Toby graduated from Starfish Cafe’s job-training program.

“I was still coping with (Hurricane) Katrina, and my mom had diabetes,” Collins said. She wasn’t working too much. I wasn’t the head of the household or anything, but I was just trying to make money for myself. I’m watching movies with the drug dealers making millions of dollars, and I thought that’s what I had to do to make money. I was trying to turn that life into my life.”

Collins’ experience with unemployment is not too unique for Gulf Coast residents. Fillhart reports that about 18 percent of applicants to Starfish Cafe have been arrested or convicted of crimes and 63 percent of students identified as unemployed when they applied.

The year before Hurricane Katrina hit, Hancock County’s unemployment rate averaged at five percent for the year of 2004. In 2005, the county’s unemployment rate more than doubled from the previous year, landing at 10.8 percent. Harrison County, one of the three coastal counties, saw an identical trend.

Jackson County, the coast’s easternmost county and headquarters of the state’s largest private employer, Ingalls Shipbuilding, saw its unemployment rate rise from only 5.8 to 9.9 percent from 2004 to 2005. Jackson is the only coastal county that has been able to achieve an unemployment rate even lower than the annual rate reported in 2004, and it only took a couple of years. In 2007, the county’s annual average unemployment rate was 5.5 percent. Thirteen years after Katrina, Harrison and Hancock counties have not had the same unemployment rate success.

Contrary to popular conceptions of tourism-driven economic viability on the Coast, the three coastal coasties report middling employment numbers with Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties ranking Nos. 18, 27 and 42, respectively, among counties for unemployment rates.

Ultimately, the charges against Collins were dropped. He remained motivated and continued with the student training program. Di even testified on Collins behalf, assuring the judge that he was being productive and staying out of trouble.

“It was very surprising,” Collins said. Her son was there too, just to help me in case I did get convicted. They were there for me. Not a lot of people from my area would do that. People wouldn’t go and testify on your behalf. They would just wish you the best and hope you come home.”

After completing the program, Collins worked for about 7 months as a dish washer and fry cook at 200 North Beach, a restaurant just one block away from Starfish Cafe.

Di then informed him that Hollywood Casino was interested in interviewing him. He landed the job and worked there as a cook for over two years. During his time at the casino, Collins’ mom lost her battle with diabetes. Collins knew eventually he wanted to leave Mississippi and the hardships he experienced there completely behind. In May of 2016 he moved to Houston. He bought his first car and apartment. He quickly got a job as a cook for the American Express platinum card member lounge in the George Bush International Airport. He still works there.

“They taught me a lot about financial independence, and they taught me a lot about consistency,” he said of Di and Zac. “No matter what life throws at you, just keep going.”

Pay-what-you-want menu

Each Starfish student’s $4,000 tuition and work incentive account is all funded privately by sponsors and donations from local foundations and organizations. But it’s the revenue from the pay-what-you-want restaurant that covers the majority of the expenses.

Starfish Cafe owner Diana "Di" Fillhart appreciates donations towards her students' tuition.
Starfish Cafe owner Diana “Di” Fillhart appreciates donations put towards her students’ tuition.

In 2015, a little more than two years after opening the Starfish Cafe, Di decided to remove the prices from the restaurant’s “unique” menu.

“In the beginning, our market niche was for people that were disenfranchised from traditional restaurants,” Di said. “They may have diabetes. They may need to be gluten free. They may need to be on a calorie-reduced diet…”

Sesame Zoodles with Crispy Tofu and Blackened Tuna Tacos are two of the many menu items at Starfish Cafe.

There are plenty of colorful dishes to choose from at the Starfish Cafe, but there is one way customers can’t have their food: fried.

“We do not have a fryer,” Di said. “If we fry something it’s a one-time event or for a special menu item. But we don’t have a fryer that’s a traditional fryer. We don’t fry our food. Bake, broil, grill is how we go. We use a lot of fresh items.”

Also, without a walk-in cooler, the Starfish Cafe buys local, fresh foods and even regularly receives fresh fruits and vegetables grown and donated by locals in the area.

“One thing that sets us apart from the traditional restaurant is that I don’t have a problem with running out of food,” Zac said. Some people think it’s really crazy that we make 98 percent of our menu from scratch. We source what we can, and when I run out of something that day, I run out. We get some customers that get kind of angry about that, especially if it’s their first time here, and they came for a particular dish.”

Zac and Di change the menu twice a year, and 80 percent of the items are specials.

“We try to use 100 percent of everything that comes in, so you’ll find that the same vegetable may be present in three different dishes,” Di said.

As the executive chef, Zac hopes to debunk the myth that healthy food can’t taste good. And he starts with his students, recalling that Toby Collins once professed a profound distaste for green beans because he had only eaten the canned product.

“I said, ‘Toby, that’s not a green bean. It’s a green bean, but there’s a difference between fresh food and processed food,” Zac recalls. “There’s nothing wrong with what you’ve eaten before, but it could taste so much better.’ And then he ate green beans for the rest of the time he was here when he could find them.”

With proven success with the pay-what-you-want system and faith in her customers, Di refuses to return to set menu prices. For her, providing an opportunity for her customers to invest in someone’s life or an opportunity for those who may have never been able to pay to eat in a restaurant means much more.

“You have students that come in that can’t look you in the eye when they start, and they look down when they talk.” Di said. “But by the time they graduate, they’re bringing food out of the kitchen, and they’re smiling and they can talk to you eye to eye. Every parent should have the opportunity to see that happen. I can’t go back to where I was. Whatever the future holds, it will hold.”

To donate, view menu items and learn more about the Starfish Cafe visit www.starfishcafebsl.com.

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Sereena Henderson managed Mississippi Today’s social media and reported on Mississippi culture from August 2016 until June 2020. She was also a member of the engagement team and curated and delivered the daily newsletter. Sereena, a native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, is a graduate of the Ole Miss School of Journalism and New Media.

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