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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2017
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Metropolitan Ministries' café feeds customers, needy

TAMPA - Luis Velez didn't have consistent work or a home of his own, but now he lives in a Tampa apartment and whips up sandwiches at Inside the Box Café downtown. His employer doesn't just feed café customers; it also feeds the homeless and provides jobs for the needy. All proceeds from Inside the Box Café and Catering support Metropolitan Ministries' work to alleviate hunger in the Tampa area. Each meal purchased pays for a meal for a needy person. The catering service has been around for two years. The café at 505 N. Tampa St. has been open since February.
More than 67,000 meals have been sold through the café and catering service combined. In turn, that has bought more than 67,000 meals for the needy. "It's fantastic," Velez said of the concept. "A person gets to eat and helps somebody else to eat. It's one of the reasons I love this job." Inside the Box, operated through the nonprofit Metropolitan Ministries, provides job training and employment opportunities for the organization's clients, such as Velez. Metropolitan Ministries provides more than 2,300 daily hot meals and serves more than 45,000 families annually. Operations at the café and catering business primarily are staffed by eight formerly homeless people. The employees are assisted by four interns who are current residents at Metropolitan Ministries. "Thanks to this job I'm now self-sufficient," Velez said. "I live on my own. I have an awesome job. I'm able to hold my head up high." The catering concept came from Cliff Barsi, Metropolitan Ministries' senior director of food services and social enterprise. It opened after receiving a $25,000 grant in 2010 from the Children's Board of Hillsborough County. "It took off very quickly," said Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan Ministries. "People saw it was great food, great quality." Outback founder Bob Basham donated space downtown so a café could open, too. The café draws a steady lunchtime crowd. It is open for business from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. Half sandwiches ranging from turkey club to grilled vegetables run for $3.95. A boxed lunch including a half sandwich or salad and two extra items such as dessert or drinks costs $6.59. The café has helped increase recognition for the catering business, Barsi said. The catering business recently received an event's order for about 5,000 meals. "We would love to be able to replicate this in St. Pete and also in Pasco," Marks said of the café. "We're seeing that this is a self-sustaining program."

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