She and husband Jim opened Nellie's Cafe in 2007 across from the old Longwood Hotel, near the spot where the long-awaited SunRail commuter train was supposed to stop, which they figured would be a boon for business. But three years passed, and the recession arrived instead of the train.
To celebrate Father's Day, the Millers are cooking up a hearty brunch and letting customers eat for free. They hope that, in lieu of paying a check, patrons will place a donation in a collection box for Kids House of Seminole, a charity that helps abused and neglected children.
The Millers call it their "Grand Closing."
"As far as we're concerned, everybody is having a tough time right now," 48-year-old Joyce Miller says. "The only way people can make a difference is if everybody gives what they can to help out. We feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to do this, and we just wanted to give something back."
She means "giving back" in more of a metaphysical sense, of course. In reality, the restaurant never did turn a profit.
"We came close to breaking even just before the recession hit, about a year and a half into it," says Jim Miller, 54. Fortunately, he kept his day job designing computer systems for AT&T, though he liked to man the cafe grill on weekends.
It was his idea to turn the closing into a charity benefit, though his wife immediately embraced the idea.
"We both wanted to do something for kids," says Joyce, the youngest of nine children.
It couldn't come at a better time for Kids House. Just last month, its finance director, Stephen A. Oliver of Lake Mary, was arrested and charged with stealing about $48,000 from the organization before the theft was discovered through an internal audit. Though insurance should cover the loss, development director Marcie Dearth says, these are lean times for charities in general — and this unsolicited act of generosity helps ease a sense of betrayal.
"We've been the beneficiary of grand openings and recognition months before, but I think this is our first closing event," Dearth says. "This is a new one."
There will be no hard sell. If a diner wants to eat and not donate, the Millers say, so be it.
"If they can swallow the food knowing they're taking advantage when they could afford to give something," Joyce says, "well, somebody else will deal with that."
After all, she has run the restaurant for three years on lessons learned at her mother's knee. The meatloaf and home-baked bread and sweet potato patties were the types of workingman's food her mom once cooked for her dad. Joyce turned them into $5 lunch specials and had a way of making customers feel like family.
"It was kind of the 'Cheers' approach, where everybody knows your name," says Brian Roy, president of a local engineering firm and a Nellie's customer since the first day. "I had kind of an assigned seat with my name on it and the name of my company and my baby picture on the table. She did the same thing for some of the other regulars, too. She threw us birthday parties [at no charge] … and if somebody was on a special diet, she would make sure she cooked something they could eat.
"I told her she ought to be signed up as the charity for all the money she lost."
The Millers wouldn't hear of it, of course.
"Her only fear is that we'll be inundated with people and will run out of food or that people will leave with a bad impression," Jim says. "But we'll do what we can, and we have some volunteers helping us."
After Sunday, Joyce will have the foot surgery she has been postponing and will get some much-needed rest. Running a breakfast-and-lunch diner, she has learned, can be a round-the-clock effort, and it has been only two weeks since her mother died. She has hardly had time to grieve.
Perhaps one day down the road, Joyce will try to create her dream again.
"We're keeping the corporation and the name and putting the equipment in storage," Jim says. "Who knows?"
Kate Santich can be reached at 407-420-5503 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nellie's Café, 323 N. Ronald Reagan Blvd. in Longwood, will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Brunch includes pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, fresh-baked bread, sweet potato patties, coffee, orange juice or iced tea.