Bay Saint Louis, nestled on the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Gulfport, has built a reputation on quaint charm and fun. No matter the time of year, a festival, parade, concert, or art show is bringing color to downtown. The streets are bustling with happy people enjoying the laid-back coastal life.

In the middle of it all is Starfish Café, a charming blue building decorated with bright colors, eclectic art, and yes, starfish. But what makes Starfish Café special isn’t the ambiance—it’s the restaurant’s unique focus on community. 

Every good restaurant is all about the food—and the Starfish is no exception. Their menu is built around fresh, local ingredients, which is apparent before a customer even walks inside. The yard is planted with seasonal vegetables and lined with raised beds of herbs, like thyme, tarragon, sage, and lavender. The café even boasts its own beehives, which produce the honey used in many of their recipes. Owner Di Fillhart wants anything planted on the café’s grounds to either be edible or beneficial to the bees and the butterflies that hover around the restaurant. The rest of the ingredients are locally sourced, like fish from local fisherman, grass-fed beef from nearby farms, and fresh eggs that come from Ruth’s Roots, a community garden run by the citizens of Bay Saint Louis.

Fillhart says that the Starfish “makes the menu off what we got.” That means the menu changes frequently, with offerings like carrot ginger soup or locally raised grass-fed ribeye steak with mushroom demi-glace, served with roasted veggies from the garden. “You are what you eat,” Fillhart says, so she makes sure that she feeds the people who come through her door well. Her philosophy is that food should nourish everyone, and the menu includes options for all kinds of diets, from diabetic to gluten-free, and even Paleo and Whole 30. 

This kind of inclusivity spreads to pricing too. Everyone is welcome at the Starfish, which is why no prices are printed on the menu. It’s all pay what you want. 

No one is ever turned away for a lack of ability to pay. And that’s not the only way the Starfish is making a difference. Fillhart is a professional life coach, and her restaurant is staffed by her students. The Starfish is more than a restaurant. It’s the home to PNEUMA—Winds of Hope, a nonprofit organization aimed at teaching hands-on training in restaurants and real-life skills, including financial literacy and anger management courses. While the students are learning to julienne carrots or perfect a smooth ganache for the chocolate truffle cake, they are also learning how to be successful in life. The goal is for students to complete the ServSafe certification exam, a 20-minute knife skills test, and all the life skills classes, among other things, before they can graduate, typically in sixteen weeks.

When Di began her Bay St. Louis ministry in 2013, she tagged it “Operation Starfish.” She didn’t know the story at the time, but says The Starfish Story has become the core mission of the cafe. “When we came here, we knew we were grassroots. We knew we were really small, but our mission was just to help one by one. So from the beginning, it was going to be Starfish Cafe.”

The program is based on work incentives. The students work in the Starfish, earning $100 a week, which is put aside for the future. Once a student graduates, he or she gets $200. The remainder is paid once the student demonstrates that he or she has worked (or volunteered) for at least 25 hours a week for six months. The students show paychecks in their monthly post-graduation meetings, something that is important to Fillhart, who works to maintain relationships with the students who come through her program. 

“We want success,” says Fillhart, of her students. “I can’t change them. The students set goals every two weeks. It puts the responsibility on them.” 

So what does success look like? 

One Starfish graduate is now living in Hawaii, working for Norwegian Cruise Lines. Another is on his second tour in the Navy. Students typically find work in local restaurants or casinos. “They are keeping up with family commitments, living independently,” explains Fillhart. “They are doing what they want.” And that just may be the definition of success for Fillhart: her students can be free to live the lives they want to live. 

Part of the Starfish’s success comes from Fillhart’s ability to inspire her students—and the other people around her. Bobbie Necaise began working with the café when she heard about what they were doing. Necaise first brought some home-grown vegetables for the Starfish’s kitchen, but soon she volunteered her time as well. 

“Di is such a joyous person,” Necaise said. “You feel good just talking to her.” Necaise is convinced that the heart of the Starfish is Fillhart herself. “She changes the students’ lives and the lives of everyone who comes there. They can feel the love and the dedication. One person can change the world for someone else. She is living her purpose.” 

Fillhart is more humble, saying that the café needs the community, just as much as the community needs the café. 

“It takes a group of community people to support us,” says Fillhart. The restaurant, the program, all of it runs on donations and hours of work by volunteers. 

So, next time you’re in Bay Saint Louis, stop by. Have a slice of cheesecake with fresh strawberries or try the freshly baked pumpkin pecan sourdough. It just may change someone’s life.