TAMPA — The boxed lunches, colored in elegant olive green and orange, look modern and sophisticated. A cut above Panera Bread, offerings range from carved beef sandwiches to filet mignon entrees for corporate business meetings.
Menus and various recipe cards are tucked inside, just for kicks, with instructions for making dishes such as barbecue salmon or fire-roasted edamame salads.
Yet the catered meals don't come from a thriving local business. They come from a program called "Inside the Box Constructive Catering" housed in an unlikely locale: Metropolitan Ministries.
The nonprofit food bank's staff and clients run Inside the Box, which launched late last year with a $25,000 award from the Children's Board of Hillsborough County. Area businesses buy the lunches at a cost of $12.50 to $19 each, which is more expensive than some other catering options. But the price tag, which includes production costs, sends about 40 percent of proceeds back into Metropolitan Ministries' mission. Each box buys a meal for a needy family of four.
The Inside the Box menu includes more than 20 selections, including prosciutto and roast chicken sandwiches, Asian tuna steak salads and seafood lasagna. Sizes and prices vary.
The program's motto: "A meal for you, a meal for them." So far, 4,380 boxes have been sold, said Ana Maria Mendez, the nonprofit's spokeswoman.
Of equal importance are the internships the program offers for the homeless and underprivileged, giving them kitchen training that helps boost their resumes for catering and restaurant jobs.
The gourmet boxed lunches use ingredients like all-natural meat, herb aioli instead of plain mayonnaise, goat cheese and French bread par-baked in France. The resulting high-end product out destroys any preconceived notions about the cooking skills of the homeless.
"Obviously, we wanted to attract high-end customers and go completely against what people thought about Metropolitan Ministries," chef Cliff Barsi said. "It shows that we're training people to be self-sufficient."
Luis Velez, 22, one of Barsi's "resident interns," lives in housing provided by Metropolitan Ministries and helps make the catered box lunches, as well as thousands of other meals the organization cranks out daily.
Over the past month, Velez has learned how to properly cook roast beef, layer a lasagna and create a breakfast omelet sandwich with white cheddar and applewood-smoked bacon.
"It's tested the limits of what I can do in the kitchen," he said.
In the past, Velez has worked at restaurants such as Evos and Steak n Shake, which gave him a paycheck but not the experience he needed toward his goal of becoming a pastry chef. Without Inside the Box, he said, he could not afford to enroll in a cooking or catering program.
"Everybody wants experience, and I don't have experience in a 'regular' kitchen," Velez said. "They want 'proper' kitchen experience. All I have is fast-food experience."
Barsi's goal has always been to provide culinary training to those who can't afford it. He began working in kitchens at 17 and owned restaurants, catering businesses and a wholesale bakery. He also ran operations for the Joffrey's Coffee & Tea Co. chain.
About two years ago, Barsi, 48, began volunteering at Metropolitan Ministries and within days the nonprofit hired him as its executive chef.
Inside the Box is a step toward a Metropolitan Ministries culinary school, which Barsi plans to open in August, enrolling eight students over a four-month period.
Over time, the program hopes to attract 24 students at a time that could include young adults who have aged out of foster homes and more resident interns like Velez.
So far, the results have impressed.
"Even if it wasn't for the good cause that it is, the lunches are worth it," said Troy Muilenburg, president of Itasca Construction Associates of Tampa, which has ordered Inside the Box lunches twice to feed clients. "They're very good and very professionally presented."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.