DOWNTOWN — The directive seemed more in line at a soup kitchen than at a fine restaurant.
"If they ask for more sugar, give them three or four packets but not more than that," Luke Thomas told waiters just before the customers came in. "We're on a really tight budget, especially this time of year."
The Trinity Cafe downtown had a lobster bisque appetizer on the menu that day. And chef Alfred Astl, wearing a spotless white neckerchief, had a resume that stretched from an Aspen resort to the Four Seasons Hotel in New York.
But this restaurant is unlike the expensive eateries of Astl's past.
It's a nonprofit restaurant that serves the homeless.
For eight years, the cafe on the second floor of the Salvation Army building has aspired to be a first-class restaurant with china, table service, flowers, three courses and a daily menu that Austrian-born chef Astl puts together. Thomas, the volunteer coordinator on Fridays, serves as a maitre d' of sorts, while other volunteers act as busboys, waiters and doormen.
But the recession has taken a bite out of the cafe's supplies, and by doing so, threatens to steal the very thing that differentiates the Trinity Cafe from a breadline:
Dignity and a touch of class for lives rubbed raw by the streets.
The difference between a handout and what the cafe provides is in the customer-friendly table service, as well as the quality ingredients in the food. But that distinction blurs when Astl cannot serve cherry strudel from scratch but has to turn to store-brand cookies and Slim Jims for dessert.
"That's ridiculous," said Thomas, who works as an associate pastor in Brandon when he's not volunteering. "They're going to get fed, but if it is good quality and they know it's good quality, it deepens the investment they feel. 'Hey, you're worth this — you're worth a five-star meal.' "
Astl altruistically gave up his 35-year restaurant career to work at the Trinity Cafe when it opened in 2001. He used to make stuffed peppers, swordfish and crab cakes from donated supplies and careful shopping at food banks and wholesale brokers. From his restaurant experience, he knew where to find bargains on cheesecake that ended up the wrong color and other gourmet odds and ends.
Now he dreams of just getting his hands on some ground beef, which has been priced out of the Trinity Cafe's budget.
"Things are tighter than I've seen them in my eight years and 30 days that we've been open," said Jeff Darry, a founding director.
Two weeks ago, the cafe's accountant told the staff that $4,500 for bills needed to be raised by Nov. 20. The day before their deadline, Sav-A-Lot came through with a $5,000 donation to buy food, along with another 5,000 pounds of food. Another nonprofit, America's Second Harvest of Tampa Bay, had alerted the grocer of the cafe's needs.
The cafe, at 1603 N Florida Ave., operates on an annual budget of $300,000 with a paid staff of two and an army of volunteers. Most of the money goes toward food, which costs about $1,000 a meal to serve more than 200 people at lunch, which is the only meal the cafe serves, program director Cindy Davis said.
A Hillsborough County grant provides $72,000 of the cafe's budget and the rest comes from donors, who have cut back drastically, Davis said.
Besides the recession, staff members think the cafe is hampered by a perception that it's part of the Salvation Army and gets some of the money its red kettles collect during holiday fundraising. Although the organizations share space they do not share any donations.
Even with mismatches of ingredients, program director Cindy Davis says Astl works miracles turning leftover vegetables into sumptuous soup and appetizers into entrees.
Service remains strong. Every day, volunteers hand out a limited number of restaurant passes on the streets before lunchtime. At noon, homeless people line up for a seat at one of eight round tables, where one volunteer serves them and another sits as company.
When the diners finish, their seats get bused for someone else.
Just like a restaurant.
Over eight years, the Trinity Cafe has served more than 580,000 people.
"They actually make you feel human for once," said Joshua Medina, 34, who has eaten there twice. "You feel for 15 minutes that you're not a piece of s--- homeless person."
That's exactly what the Trinity Cafe strives to do. But staff members wonder if they can keep doing so without the supplies they need to make the cafe special.
"I still give them a balanced meal," Astl said, "but I'd like to do more pastries."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.