TAMPA — It's 7:10 a.m. and they're running late, the brightly painted van slicking quickly southward on Tampa Street through the daylight saving-dark of downtown. Chely Figueroa, 24, takes the chairs off the cafe tables, the floor clean from yesterday's mopping, while Luis Velez, 23, helps unload the van. There are the turkey clubs, a big seller, the veggie sandwiches on baguettes, the salads all individually packed.
"Where do you want these, Chef?" Charles Mack asks the guy in the beige chef coat and the orange ballcap, its Inside the Box Café logo still crisp across the front. Not that chef Cliff Barsi hasn't been sweating in it.
At the helm of Metropolitan Ministries' all-new venture, Barsi must orchestrate many moving pieces. There are the culinary students selected from Metropolitan Ministries' residential program who are put through a four-month cooking crash course. There are the 27 partner sites (area churches) for which MM's commissary kitchen produces meals. There are the catering jobs and the residents' breakfasts, lunches and dinners to oversee. And now, thanks to a $25,000 grant awarded to the winner of the 2010 Innovative Business Plan Award sponsored by the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, there's Inside the Box Café.
The math is simple. Go to the attractive cafe at 505 N Tampa St. and order a box lunch. Maybe a half sandwich or a salad with a couple extras ($6.59), and half of that money goes to feed someone in need at Metropolitan Ministries. Take that $3.29 and multiply it by the 3,300 meals they've sold since opening in January, and that's $10,857.
It may not sound like much, but within the last three years, individuals, restaurants and other businesses have donated less to nonprofits like Metropolitan Ministries just as the number of homeless people has skyrocketed. According to a 2011 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, Tampa has the highest rate of homelessness in America at 57 per 10,000 residents.
That's still abstract.
"There are 17,000 individual homeless people in Hillsborough County," Tim Marks, Metropolitan Ministries president, says in the kitchen of Inside the Box Café as he watches the assembly of the day's special PBLT (a regular BLT with pulled pork). "And that's 4,000 homeless children."
Path to a dream
Barsi started cooking when he was 17 as a banquet manager at Innisbrook. He flirted with going to the Culinary Institute of America, but ended up starting a private aircraft catering business out of his parents' garage. Red Baron Catering lasted for a while, followed by cooking for resorts in Wyoming, working at Bella's on South Howard and at Alessi Farmers Market in Carrollwood in the early 1990s, followed by setting his sister up in a dessert business. Then, he took over a nutritional bars and shakes company called "Go Healthy" by the guy who invented Gatorade (UF basketball players would say, "This stuff is the bomb," and he worried it was a bad thing), and finally he worked on publications for the NFL.
What he really wanted to do was open a culinary school/restaurant, which during the day was a training ground for at-risk youth; at night, a station-oriented place people could come and eat.
He met with Marks and Metropolitan Ministries CEO Morris Hintzman and they said, "If you want, you could start the culinary school here." But it wasn't exactly right — he envisioned a restaurant.
"There's a saying," Barsi says, "If you don't know what God wants you to do, just do what you're good at."
So he started volunteering in the Metropolitan Ministries kitchen in 2009, and a couple months later he was named executive chef.
According to Marks, in the first year Barsi saved the nonprofit $100,000 through prudent staffing and purchasing; in the second year, the same amount again. But it wasn't until they won the business plan award, and board member Bob Basham, a founder of Outback Steakhouse restaurant brands, offered up the space from his abortive yogurt shop prototype that Barsi's dream was realized and Inside the Box Café fell into place.
Luis Velez and his wife, Leinani, got married young, at 19. They had a baby even younger. Now, Mia Isabella is 3 and Ayden is 2. Velez and his family bounced from relative to relative for a while, and the tension of close quarters and different lifestyle choices made young love and new parenthood even tougher. They moved into Metropolitan Ministries' resident program a little over a year ago. Now the family of four has moved into an apartment of their own just down the street on Spruce, and Luis is one of two employees working full time at the cafe.
Weekdays at 6 a.m., a small team of kitchen workers at the nonprofit's commissary kitchen fills the baked-off baguettes and ciabatta, wraps stacks of sheet trays in plastic, and rolls tubs of crunchy broccoli slaw and spicy cucumber salad out to the van. It's a slick operation, one that could be replicated and expanded upon, if you listen to Barsi and Marks. They are poised to start a new class of eight culinary students, and they've even got their eye on bidding for the $1 million catering gig to feed local law enforcement during the upcoming Republican National Convention. Why not? As the kitchen staff's T-shirts say, "Good Food, Doing Good."
At the cafe, hours before 8,000 high school thespian conventioneers begin the search for lunch, Luis is finishing sandwiches, adding pickled red onion or chipotle aioli and spring mix. He wraps each half-sandwich carefully in shiny brown paper before it goes into the glass case. They're looking to get little stickers to seal the paper, but for now he slides a bamboo skewer through each sandwich. The point occasionally pricks his skin, but his fingers are kitchen-toughened enough that he hardly notices.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.