TAMPA — In the hall of an East Busch Boulevard church Monday, there was such a thing as a free lunch.
“Hey, it’s free food,” said Pedro Colon, who lives about a block away and was just finishing up his sumptuous mid-day fare that included a salad with French dressing, smoked sausage with salsa cruda sauce, polenta, a chilled side of tomato, cucumber and onion.
Dessert was cranberry-lemon bar and an apple.
“You can’t beat that,” Colon said.
Trinity Cafe, which for the past 15 years has dished out more than a million gourmet quality meals to the homeless and needy in the heart of Tampa, opened up its second eatery Monday. The two locations are expected to double its output of food, sating some 600 people a day.
Volunteers and donors greeted the lunch crowd at the First Church of God, 2202 E. Busch Blvd., when the doors opened at 11:30 a.m. Monday.
Among them was Colon, who had to hop a couple of buses four or five times a week to get to the Trinity Cafe on Nebraska Avenue. But now he walks.
“I live on the next street,” he said. “ I can walk off this lunch.”
Trinity Cafe officials say there won’t be a lack of diners and prepared 100 meals for the first day’s service.
Homeless advocates estimate about 2,000 people in Tampa are homeless and more than 200,000, including 50,000 children, struggle with hunger, not knowing where their next meals are coming from.
The Busch Boulevard area needs this, according to the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger, because people who live in and around that region miss more than 3 million meals a year.
Trinity Cafe Executive Director Mandy Cloninger said once word gets out about the free eats, people will flock to the Busch Boulevard location.
“Within a few months, we’ll be serving 300,” she said. Service at the church is Monday through Friday between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Lunch is served seven days a week, 365 days a year at the Nebraska Avenue cafe. No one is turned away and the fare, prepared by gourmet chef Jim Rice is, by all accounts, delicious.
Cloninger was happy to see the tables filled with people who otherwise may have gone hungry.
“I feel a little overwhelmed,” she said. “This is a beautiful example of a community that comes together to combat hunger.”
She said more Trinity Cafes could sprout here and there in the future.
“We may replicate this model,” Cloninger said. “We will go wherever the need is.”
Though volunteers showed up en masse at the Busch Boulevard Trinity Cafe, there still is a need for more people who want to help serve the food and clean up.
“We need volunteers,” she said. Anyone interested can sign up on the Trinity Cafe’s website. “We need 32 people a day at each location.“
The nonprofit Trinity Cafe, funded through donations and government grants, has fed as many people as its budget allowed since it began in 2001.
People kept coming, filling the small dining rooms, first at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, then at the Salvation Army in Tampa Heights and, since 2013, at 2810 N. Nebraska Ave.
It wasn’t long before Cloninger, hired last year, saw the need to expand. With a $65,000 grant from Hillsborough County and a $200,000 gift from the Bank of America, the Busch Boulevard locale became a reality.
“It’s magnificent. It’s unbelievable,” said Jeff Darrey, who helped found the project a decade-and-a-half ago with the intent to serve downtrodden people with dignity and respect. “It’s amazing.”
As he spoke, one of the lunchers, Charlie Gilmer, finished his meal and walked over to a piano in the corner of the room and began playing flawlessly a number of songs, each ending amid the applause of the diners.
The Virginia native, who said he graduated from Shenandoah University with a master’s degree in piano performance, first showed up at the Nebraska Avenue site when he got to town last year.
“I just want to help the people a little bit,” he said between tunes, “by lifting their spirits.”
Meandering among the tables, cleaning up, refilling drinks and chatting the lunch crowd up was Shirley Clark, who, along with about a dozen others from St. Andrew Presbyterian Church of New Tampa, volunteered at the opening of the Busch Boulevard cafe.
“It’s rewarding to do this and to interact with these people,” she said. “We all are God’s children.”