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Hooper: Car bursts through wall, but Trinity Cafe keeps feeding homeless

A driver crashed into Trinity Cafe building on June 12 in the early morning. Despite the trials, Trinity Cafe opened the next morning and still prides itself on serving food insecure individuals. Photo Courtesy of the Trinity Cafe
Published Jun. 18, 2018

The tent went up in the Trinity Cafe parking lot hours before lunch on Wednesday morning.

Minutes later, volunteers started rolling out the chairs and the table.

For the second consecutive day, the cafe would serve its customers — the food insecure — amid 90 degree humidity. But the determination of the staff and volunteers and the graciousness of the guests would outshine the Florida sun.

What led the cafe to shift from its brightly colored cafe to its asphalt lot? Well, an errant driver crashed into its west wall early Tuesday morning, opening a gaping hole. The car lost control on Nebraska Avenue, bending two steel beams and knocking the painting of Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Teresa and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. off the wall.

The painting wasn't damaged, however, and neither was the drive of the Trinity Cafe faithful. The staff, which prided itself on continuing to serve during Hurricane Irma, never considered disrupting meal service to the crowd. The cafe averages 300 people for weekday lunches and the same number for weekend breakfasts.

Trinity Cafe executive director Mandy Cloninger said the decision reflected the resiliency of all involved. As news of the accident spread, many of the longtime volunteers offered help to ensure the cafe's 365-day mission would extend another afternoon.

"We have a team of people show up to serve every day," Cloninger said. "It's a reflection of the culture of service we've created over 17 years. For so many folks, it's important we continue dishing up dignity every day."

While the cafe remains intact, code enforcement officials said they couldn't allow operations to continue inside until a structural engineer deemed the building safe.

No problem. They would serve outside. Because this isn't about fulfilling a want, it's about meeting a need.

So Chef Ben D'Azzo, a man known for his nimble ways in the kitchen, employed the cold-lunch approach he used the Monday after Irma when the cafe had no power — wraps, chips, cheese crackers and an apple. Volunteers served guests who stood or sat on the outdoor bleachers at the cafe.

Cloninger still heard the lively discussions between servers and customers that are a trademark of the cafe. The sense of community, the desire to connect on a human level, remained even in the heat.

You know what you didn't hear? Complaints.

"There was just overwhelming gratitude with the volunteers and the guests," said Shannon Hannon-Oliviero, the cafe's development and communications director. "They were so gracious, so thankful."

On Wednesday, the cafe connected with a rental company and acquired a tent with the help of Extravaganza Productions, which will again help produce the cafe's annual Stick A Fork In Hunger gala Nov. 14-17.

Yes, that's a shameless plug. Get tickets at

With the tent in place, D'Azzo prepared one of the cafe's standard hot meals in the kitchen, which is still operational. He provided salad, baked chicken and black beans and rice. As always, volunteers served the guests on real china with real silverware.

And since they set up outside, ice cream cones for dessert.

It all reminded me of the trials Brocato's Sandwich Shop endured years ago. Its dining room, just east of Ybor City, was wrecked by a car in 2006 but owner Michael Brocato used the time to perfect "Aunt Nina's Devil Crabs."

Now it's a staple at the venerable restaurant, overnighted to far-away locations.

It's possible Trinity Cafe also may find blessings in its trials. Cloninger has long held dreams of a pop-up effort — taking Trinity's food service to needy pockets in the city.

Now they know a little more about how to serve on the fly. Cloninger hopes to take the lessons learned, apply them to a later effort and deliver more meals to more needy folks.

In the end, it's clear — just because you have a crash in life, you don't have to crash and burn.

That's all I'm saying.


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