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Trinity Cafe: a million meals and (still) counting

Chef Alfred Astl prepares lunch at Trinity Cafe in Tampa on Thursday.
Published Jan. 19, 2015

TAMPA

Markease Kilpatrick showed up toward the end of lunch service as the last plates of chipotle beef, potatoes and mixed vegetables were being cleared.

Kilpatrick isn't homeless, he said. He's a construction worker between jobs and, for now, "the Trinity" was the place to be for a hot meal, "to get me on my way."

Whatever the reason, hundreds like Kilpatrick line up daily outside the Trinity Cafe food program at 2801 N Nebraska Ave.

Most are homeless, but increasingly more of Tampa's working poor are among the ranks that await the start of lunch.

Today marks a special day at the Trinity. After nearly 14 years, the cafe will serve its one millionth free meal. Program manager Cindy Davis sees the occasion as a milestone in doing God's work.

"Really, it's a blessing to help them, a blessing to me. There's so much need in the community," she said. "You hear lots of stories about people who lost jobs. Some people these days are only a paycheck or two away from being on the street."

The cafe serves one meal per day. On weekends, it's breakfast. During the week it's a hot lunch. Crowds, mostly men, wait in the lobby to be called to one of a dozen round tables that each seat six. Meals are served on real plates and bowls, not disposables.

The men quietly sit as the first course — Cuban bread and chicken egg drop soup — is brought out. That will be followed by chipotle beef patties, baked potatoes and mixed vegetables with caramelized shallots.

A mix of ages, races and religions crowd in together. One man, a cross dangling from his neck, chats with another wearing a crocheted Muslim taqiya, or skullcap.

Although founded by members of Christ the King Catholic Church, the cafe does not preach any one religion.

"We try to show them some respect. We're not here to tell you what you should do," said Jeff Darrey, one of the founders. "We're here to talk to you, to have a conversation without any conditions."

The cafe started when the Rev. Michael Muhr, then pastor at Christ the King, approached parishioners about starting a meals program. A board was formed. Then the group set out to raise funds, find a chef and a dining hall.

In April 2013, the cafe moved out of the Salvation Army on Florida Avenue near downtown to its current building on Nebraska Avenue in a gritty neighborhood north of Columbus Drive. The board spent $1 million renovating and outfitting the building with commercial-grade ovens, a walk-in refrigerator and a freezer.

The mission hasn't changed: To welcome the hungry, offering them food and compassion.

"We're trying to rekindle a sense of hope and dignity in our hungry guests," volunteer coordinator Maureen Brickley explained to the 30 or so volunteers who showed up to serve food, bus tables, wash dishes and sweep up afterward. "Try to remember that every one of us is a child of God."

The cafe runs mostly on volunteers. Other than Davis, the cafe employs only one other staffer, Alfred Astl, an Austrian-born chef who has spent most of his working life in resort hotel kitchens.

When it first opened, he doubted it would succeed — last year, it cost $550,000 to keep the cafe running — but the group kept the donations flowing in. It receives only one government grant: $65,000 yearly from Hillsborough County.

Astl has learned to be frugal. He pays food brokers no more $2 a pound for meat and accepts some food donations. The menu varies depending on what's available and in season. Most of the fruit and vegetables are fresh.

"Sometimes we get schoolchildren who donate canned vegetables. We never turn them away. I can always use it in a soup," he said.

The volunteers are a mix of business professionals, churchgoers and formerly homeless people. Lunch lasts about an hour and a half. About 150 to 300 show up daily for the meals.

"Everyone is always courteous," Kilpatrick said. "They talk to you if you want to talk. 'How you doing? How's your day going?' If you don't feel like talking, they kind of sense that, too. It's nice here."

That the cafe will serve its one millionth meal on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday isn't lost on Davis.

"I think he would have been proud of us," she said.

Contact Rich Shopes at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @richshopes.

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