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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Trinity Cafe really is dream come true

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Published:   |   Updated: August 11, 2013 at 01:25 PM

It’s unlikely the denizens of the original Dream could have imagined what their Dream is today.

From the street, the plain building on Nebraska Avenue just north of town could be anything. By midmorning there is a crowd of more than 50 people near the entrance, hours before it will open.

This is the Trinity Cafe. You likely know or can guess that the homeless gather here five days a week for meals, but it is so much more than that.

It’s a place where they are treated as guests. There is no high pressure to do anything other than sit at a clean table with real silverware and be served by volunteers.

And the three-course meal they are served can’t be found in any soup kitchen. The meals are the daily genius of Chef Alfred Astl, an Austrian master chef who has served at great restaurants but now demonstrates his brilliance by taking what simple foods he is given from donations and converting them into truly memorable meals.

On this day the 250 or so “guests’’ sit down and get a bowl of perfectly seasoned black beans.

It is followed by a heaping plate of yellow rice with broccoli and three chicken legs that would make the colonel jealous. Finally there is a dessert of French toast covered with jam.

Everyone at my table of six can’t say enough about the place. The man next to me, who told me he is not homeless but just waiting until he can get a house, has tears in his eyes. He has been walking for a long time under the brutal August sun to get here. It is his first time and he is as astonished as he is tired that a place like this exists.

It didn’t always.

Former Dream Bar

The building was once called the Dream Bar, owned by the Trafficante family. It was a notorious hangout for mobsters, bolita dealers and guys with names like “Scarface.’’

Charlie Wall, who ran the bolita rackets in Tampa, stopped in at the Dream Bar for a few drinks the same evening he would be shot in a still-unsolved murder a few hours later in his house.

Now it is a place of hope, where for a few minutes men, women and a surprising number of children can come in off the street and be treated with respect and dignity.

Pat Kennedy is sitting in the back. She has been volunteering for 12 years, since the days the cafe was at St. Peter Claver. On this day she is 90 years old.

A native of Trinidad, she came here almost a half century ago. She began volunteering as a server but now sits in the back wrapping the silverware in cloth napkins. She says it is ironic that when she was in Trinidad she started her own advertising agency called Trinity Advertising.

There are plenty of stories at the Trinity Cafe, but the overriding one is a story of what happens when you treat people with respect. Sitting in there at the 12 tables, the guests come in quietly and return the same politeness as they are given. They eat their meals and leave, saying thanks all around before returning to the staggering and tough streets outside. It’s a story they wouldn’t have believed back when the place was just a Dream.

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