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Metropolitan Ministries opens Inside the Box Cafe, noontime deli in downtown Tampa

DOWNTOWN — Since starting a box lunch catering service 14 months ago, Metropolitan Ministries has sold and delivered nearly 8,000 orders for sandwiches and salads to offices around the bay area.

Each order averages $13, making a profit that the faith-based organization uses to buy goods for Boxes of Hope, a collection of food to feed a family of four about nine meals.

On Monday, Cliff Barsi, the chef who cooked up the catering enterprise called Inside the Box, brings the business to a downtown storefront. Entrees will continue to be made fresh each morning in the homeless shelter's main kitchen, then brought to the cafe where the public can order lunch.

"We think outside the box at Inside the Box," said Barsi, 49.

The 36-seat cafe was made possible by board member Bob Basham, a founder of Outback Steakhouse restaurant brands, who offered a modest rent for space in a building he owns on Tampa Street near Madison Street.

"We're like a tapas deli," Barsi said. "Everything is half-size so individuals can mix and match."

Half salads — Italian antipasto, metro chef, chicken spinach Caesar, Greek pasta or rustic cobb — cost $3.95. The same for half sandwiches, including roast beef, prosciutto and chicken, turkey club, grilled vegetables, Italian antipasto, ham or pastrami and corned beef.

Box lunches are set at three prices: half sandwich or half salad and two extras, $6.59; two half sandwiches or two half salads and two extras, $9.89; add a third extra, $10.99. Extras can be a drink, side salad or dessert.

Blue Bear gourmet fruit popsicles are $3. "The snack that gives back,'' said Barsi, naming flavors such as spicy grilled pineapple, roasted banana rum, key lime pie and blackberry yogurt.

Like the catered lunches, profits from the cafe will go toward food for the homeless.

"Catering executive lunches began as a way to leverage our kitchen resources," said Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan Ministries. "We market them as a meal for you and a meal for them. If your box arrived with the No. 604 that means your order fed our 604th family of four."

Job training is another benefit, in addition to the cash return used to underwrite meals for the homeless, added Marks, who noted that Barsi teaches culinary school training at Metropolitan Ministries' Tampa Heights campus.

Two graduates of the Uplift U program will supervise the cafe, Marks said. The formerly homeless students are now "fully employed, learning a living to be self-sufficient," he said.

Three other shelter residents will be unpaid interns getting training in customer service and maintaining cleanliness.

Marks and Barsi see the retail store as the launchpad for more cafes, more catering jobs and employment opportunities, and possibly a food truck.

"With conventions and visitors coming, I can't think of a better time to be active in the downtown community,'' Marks said.

Share business news with Amy Scherzer at ascherzer@tampabay.com or call (813) 226-3332.

>> If you go

Inside the Box Cafe & Catering

Metropolitan Ministries open its cafe to the public on Monday at 505 N Tampa St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays . Order and pay online at ITBCatering.org or call (813) 227-9248. Profits go toward providing meals for the homeless.

Metropolitan Ministries opens Inside the Box Cafe, noontime deli in downtown Tampa 01/19/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 3:30am]

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