No matter where you are, opening a restaurant can be one of the riskiest decisions a person can make. Roughly 60% of restaurants fail within the first year, while close to 80% never make it to their fifth anniversary. The Starfish Café in downtown Bay St. Louis is months away from its fifth anniversary, and did we mention it’s a nonprofit that allows you to pay what you want when eating there?

That’s right, the Starfish Café is a farm-to-table nonprofit organization that teaches cooking skills, financial literacy, resiliency training and other life lessons to each of its students. Simply put, the food is fantastic and unbelievably fresh (they don’t even have a walk-in fridge).

Before entering the café, visitors must walk through the garden, where the students gather the majority of the vegetables used in the restaurant. Next you’ll be greeted with a smile and a menu featuring some classic Mississippi dishes. There are also daily specials, and the menu changes twice a year, but on my first visit, the seared tuna tacos were calling my name. Burgers are only served on Fridays, but the beef is grass fed and comes from a farm in Collins, MS. If the spring rolls are in season, they’re supposed to be heavenly!

The café is run by Di Fillhart, a former missionary and one of the most altruistic people you will ever meet, as well as an executive chef and an assistant trainer. Each of the students has his or her own backstory. Some come to her with a passion for the culinary arts, some simply want to learn a trade, while others have fallen on hard times and are referred to the program through ministries or even parole/probationary boards.

Over four and a half years, roughly 65 students have come through the Starfish Café program, and as Di says, “It’s not about how many people you get in and out, or how many graduate. It’s the fact that you give everyone an opportunity.”

Starfish Cafe
For instance, there was one woman (who has publicly shared this testimony, so no confidences are being betrayed) who got caught up in the world of drugs, along with her husband, and lost custody of their children while she was in rehab and he was in jail. After rehab, she came to the Starfish Café, worked extremely hard and even got her GED at the same time, and was able to get her children back. She now has a full-time job and a place to live with her children.

Another man graduated from the café’s program, completed a culinary associate program, worked his way up at a local casino, and is now about to enroll in engineering school in Houston. “You can give people the tools, but they have to learn how to open the box and use them. I can’t change their lives—they have to do that,” Di says.

Di’s position has been funded through a public health grant from the Tulane University School of Public Health, but after December, the café will count on donations for staff salaries. You can donate here, or by just going in and having a meal in person!