Alicein “Wonderland” Schwabacher was evacuating to Atlanta from New Orleans in the days before Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005. She said she decided to read a book on the trip as way to pass the time and to keep her mind off the impending natural disaster.
The book was Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Schwabacher was about four hours outside of Atlanta when she had an epiphany.
“I finished reading the book when we were in (Lee’s hometown of) Monroeville, Alabama and it was juts bizarre,” she said. “I knew that it meant something, but I wasn’t sure what it was at the time.”
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Lee’s book became the catalyst for what would become Bay St. Louis’ meeting spot — the Mockingbird Cafe.
“I loved the message of the book and when I decided I wanted to open a coffee shop and try and bring people together after the storm, it just seemed like the perfect name,” she said.
A refuge from Katrina
Schwabacher opened the Mockingbird Cafe in downtown Bay St. Louis about a year after Hurricane Katrina in an old house located on South 2nd Street. It is celebrating its 10-year anniversary.
“I had a business in New Orleans and I was in the process of moving to Bay St. Louis when the storm hit and I ended up losing my business,” she said. “The town needed a place to heal — a place where they could swap stories and find resources — and that’s what led to me opening the Mockingbird.”
I’ve been thinking about it a lot — how many cups of coffee we had to sell in order to stay open. But the people in the Bay always have a place to go.
Alicein Schwabacher, Mockingbird Cafe
She said she got the inspiration for the coffee shop — which today sells food and serves as an art gallery and a yoga studio — from her bohemian upbringing.
“My home was a refuge and there was always room for everyone,” Schwabacher said.
A house full of love
Schwabacher said she has recently spent some time reflecting on the cafe’s first couple of years in business.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot — how many cups of coffee we had to sell in order to stay open,” she said. “But the people in the Bay always have a place to go.”
She said one of the keys to her success has been the people who have supported her and the business along the way.
“I have to thank my supportive partner Rebekah,” she said. “Our success is also due to her tremendous patience and tireless work.”
Laura Hurt and Whitney LaFrance have worked at the Mockingbird since it opened its doors in 2006.
“This place is much more than a coffee shop or a job, it’s like a second home,” LaFrance said.
Hurt said the Mockingbird gave her a sense of normality after the storm.
“You can just walk in the door and tell this place is special,” she said.
Lemon and feta cookies
The cafe’s chef, New Orleans native Julie Ragusa, said she had been a patron of the business for several years before she decided to ask if Schwabacher needed any help in the kitchen.
Three years later, Ragusa oversees all of the cafe’s food preparation, from its made-from-scratch burgers, to a special sweet treat that has become one of her signature dishes.
Ragusa created the lemon and feta cookie, which she said is one the cafe’s best-selling items.
“We always sell out of them every day and we probably sell about 200 of them a week,” Ragusa said. “The biscuits and the lemon feta cookies are our best sellers.”
Ragusa said she and Schwabacher are in the process of readying a Mockingbird cookbook that will out in about six months.
The cookbook will feature recipes of the cafe’s food items, just not all of the items on the menu.
“We will have a lot of recipes, but it probably won’t have the recipe for the lemon and feta cookies — we can’t give everything away,” Ragusa said.