Chef, Trinity Cafe
Twelve years ago, Chef Alfred Astl was at a serious crossroads. He was making a great living as a chef with the Four Seasons but he was working 16-18 hour days, 6-7 days a week. The same grind for 40 years had forced him to miss quality time with his wife and kids and with grandkids now in the picture, he knew it was time to try something new. He saw a job posting in the newspaper for a chef at a new homeless kitchen in downtown Tampa. He called Trinity Café and got the job, expecting to stay there for 3-6 months until the funding ran out. Today, Chef Alfred and Trinity Café are approaching 1 million meals served and are celebrating the opening of their newly built, expanded facility in Central Tampa.
How did you become involved with your charity?
I was working a hotel and I never saw my family. In the hotel business, you’re pretty much always on-call so it was pretty much 16-18 hour days, 6-7 days a week. After years of doing that, I needed a break. I just happened to see an ad in the paper that Trinity Café was looking for a chef for feeding approximately 200 people, five days a week, Monday-Friday. I thought ‘wow, that might be something. I should give it a shot.’ So I applied and obviously I got the job and at the very beginning it was rough. It’s still rough; we’re a charity, you know? So I figured it would last 3-6 months and then I’d be back to the real world. As it turned out, I’m going on 12 years. It’s amazing. What changed is I have a life. My wife works, I come home, she comes home and we have dinner; I see my kids, which I missed. They’re 43 and 41 now but I basically missed them growing up. I have four grandkids and I basically get to see them because I get off weekends and usually I’m home by 3pm. I actually have a life. I wouldn’t call it a downside, but I don’t make nearly as much money as I used to. It’s a trade off. I enjoy what I do tremendously. The feeling I get every day when I leave there is just amazing. The guests I feed, they have a rough life. I usually get there about 5:30am and I see them on the sidewalk, which I’m used to. What I’m not used to is when the temperature gets down and they’re standing out there. I’ll tell you, it makes you think of when you have your own problems. Driving home I’ll think how am I complaining about this and that when these people are living like that. It really breaks my heart. After so many years, I know most of the regulars; some have been with us since Day 1. The first day we opened was Oct. 15, 2001 and of course, I didn’t realize no one knew we were there so I only had 65 people show up. I thought to myself, and I was naïve of the homeless population coming from the hotel industry, ‘65 people is that all? The homeless issue must not be a big issue here.’ The next day I had 260 people at the door and from then on I have a full house every day. I’m currently at 844,000 meals served.
What is one of your favorite charity events in Tampa Bay and why?
Glitz and Sticks with the Tampa Bay Lightning. They do it once a year where they get all the players and the owner and raise funds for local charities. The Lightning and Mr. Vinik donated $50,000 to Trinity Café.
As a leading man, what is one of your proudest accomplishments?
To be honest, the proudest moment is when we hit the milestone. First 100,000, then 300,000, then 500,000, then 750,000. I like to take a picture of that person and hang it up and that is so satisfying to achieve those numbers with a program that is thriving on basically private donations and grants. That means I run a super tight budget. I spend about $13,000-$16,000 a month in just food, and 99-percent of that has to be purchased. I have food brokers that I’ve been working with for years and they go to the factories for me. The reason I can operate on the budget that I have is because they go to the factory and get seconds, meaning if a cheesecake has too much food coloring or the package is a little messed up, I can get it for 10 cents on the dollar. For years I kept my meal cost between $1.60-$1.80. Now, the past year with even the economical food that I buy, the meals have gone up to about $2.30-$2.50. I can’t afford to waste anything. So I know what to do with my food and how to use it. If I can’t use something right away, it goes in the freezer until the next time comes around. I had to learn that on my own, being in the hotel business, you have people paying plenty so you have the food and labor costs. But here, you can only spend what comes in. Every summer we do get behind on bills, those food brokers that I talk about, they’re small companies and they’re the ones I hold onto. Every time I use a big company, whenever summer comes around they cut you. I understand that but I look for some compassion. We’ve never stiffed anybody. In my mind, they’re not going that extra mile so we just walk away. I only have three part-time people working for me they can only get 20-25 hours, that’s all my budget allows and I get 110-percent out of those people.
What’s the best dish in Tampa Bay?
The goose liver pate from Mise en Place. A lot of places don’t serve goose liver pate for one reason or another but they do it very well.
What’s one food you won’t eat?
Tripe. I would probably still eat it but back home in Austria, if you didn’t eat it for dinner, you saw it again on your plate for breakfast and if you didn’t eat it there, then again on your plate for lunch or until you did finally eat it. I don’t ever want to work with it, cook with it or eat it.
How do you like to unwind?
I like to play the drums. I’ve played for 30 years but I never was any good at it. It was good on a tough day to just come home and beat the crap out of those things. Both of my sons had bands, when they still lived at home and I started playing those things, they’d leave the house. I finally got rid of them because the neighbors started to complain.
Who do you most admire in Tampa Bay?
Jeff Vinik, the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s committed to donating $50,000 to a local charity for each home game. And even though the season’s start was delayed, he still kept donating money. To me, that’s a heck of an example. His employees are also required to do community hours and some of them come to Trinity Café. He even kept them on while the season was on hold and asked that they just take some free time to local charities. I look up to this man. I think he’s one of the greatest examples. He doesn’t have to do all the things he does; I’m just astonished.
Outside of charity work, what inspires you?
People who hardly have anything who volunteer their time to help others. Sometimes we get people who we help off the streets and then they want to come back and help out. That says something to me. The misconception is that all of these people on the street are shiftless. Well, they haven’t seen what I’ve seen. I’ve seen people how are really down and out who want to do something. There are a small percentage of shiftless people, but those kinds of people are everywhere. We don’t worry about that. We feed whoever comes through our doors.
Which Bay-area spots do you take your out-of-town guests to really show off our city?
The usual places: Busch Gardens, the Dali Museum, Bucs or Rays game. If it’s hockey season, I insist they go see a Lightning game.
What advice would you pass on to younger generations?
It may not sound very nice, but they should stop being spoiled and work for what they want. Quit complaining, things could be a whole lot worse.
What are you currently reading?
Iron Maiden: 30 Years of the Beast (laughs)
What does your dream vacation look like?
Very simple: anywhere with my wife. We’ve been married 44 years and we just enjoy each other.
Name one thing most people wouldn’t know about you.
I love heavy metal music
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Favorite album of all time: Praises to the War Machine by Warrel Dane
Favorite childhood television show:
Back home we had the first TV back in ’62 and it had one channel. I liked Lassie and Fury.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
If a movie were made about your life, whom would you want to play you?
Do you have a motto or words of wisdom that you live by?
Do without or work for it. Life changes everyday. You don’t know how life will turn out. Appreciate what you have.