The Metro45 Café Food Truck: A social enterprise on wheels

There’s a new food truck in town, with great food and an even better story. The Metro45 Café and Catering food truck, operated by Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM), is serving up food to hungry customers while also fulfilling LMM’s work in helping those experiencing homelessness and others with job training, civic engagement strategies, and safety net services like food and shelter.

Chopping for change students and their creations.Metro45 also serves as a way for Greater Cleveland residents to get to know the nonprofit and its work helping those experiencing homelessness and employment issues, while also providing a way to support LMM’s efforts with the purchase of lunch.

“LMM always strives to reach a broad audience, and the addition of the food truck is helping to do just that,” says LMM director of communications Jessica Starr explains. “The big blue and green Metro45 food truck is on the move all around northeast Ohio, so people outside of the downtown area who may not yet be familiar with LMM are starting to get to know us.”

Launched in November 2021, the Metro45 mission is threefold: To provide training and workforce development in the culinary and entrepreneurial worlds; to provide dignified meals to those experiencing homelessness; and to feed anyone in search of a good sandwich or burger.

“The food truck has created jobs.” says Ian Marks, LMM’s vice president of workforce development. “The entirety of my staff are alumni of our [culinary arts] programming. It also gives students, while still enrolled [in the program], the work experience on a mobile food operation. This fits in with our additional partnerships to give a broad experiential learning opportunity across the niches in culinary.”

The Hedgehog foot-long hot dog pulled pork, beer cheese, kraut, red onion, and stadium mustard.The Menu
The Metro45 menu, created by LMM’s executive chef Scott Teaman, is full of American fare favorites. Featured are the half-pound Angus beef burgers, like The Standard (with American cheese and special sauce) and The Impact (with fig jam, charred jalapeño, and white cheddar). For those who prefer a plant-based burger, a Beyond Meat patty can be substituted for the Angus beef.

The Hedgehog is an Angus beef footlong hot dog with pulled pork, beer cheese, kraut, red onion, and stadium mustard.

For chicken lovers, the Metro45 truck offers the Sweetie Bird—a yummy chicken and waffles dish—while the Angry Chick is a hot and spicy fried chicken breast sandwich.

Smoked bowls, pizza, and pierogis round out the selections.

And don’t forget the desserts. Customers can satisfy their sweet tooths with Whoopie Pies—two soft rounds of cake with cream in the middle—ice cream cookie sandwiches, or cronuts—fried croissant dough pillows dusted with sugar.

The Metro45 origins
In March 2020 LMM had been planning to open a Metro45 Café when the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined the project. The café was to be located at East 45th Street and Superior Avenue, the site of LMM’s headquarters and inspiration for the name Metro45.

When the pandemic shut everything down in 2020, café officials had to look for creative ways to continue operations. Since outdoor events with food trucks were becoming a popular option for dining out, the LMM officials pivoted from the café plan to a food truck concept.

Using a portion of a housing and shelter grant from Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio (COHHIO), LMM was able to purchase the food truck, which also further expands the workforce development and social enterprise program.

Marks and chef Teaman secured a suitable truck from a private seller in Michigan and began the cleanup and rebranding of the vehicle with new graphics.

The truck’s fresh, brightly colored exterior design includes a large QR code on its side so customers can scan the full menu with their phones.

“The food truck has signage designed to inspire conversation.” explains Michael Sering, LMM’s vice president of housing and shelter. “The tag line is ‘Great Food—Better Story.’

The Metro45 food truck ready for customers at the Lakewood Truck Park.Sering explains that the truck exterior also carries the Metro45’s mission statement: Catering, Empowerment, Social Services. “That naturally has generated conversation with shelter residents, sparking conversation with the LMM Food Truck staff who are from the LMM Culinary Arts Training Program,” Sering says. “So, it’s an organic connection.”

The Metro45 Food Truck made its debut in November 2021 at the Lakewood Truck Park, a 12,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor food truck park on Detroit Avenue. The truck has appeared there regularly, as well as at other special events and festivals.

By successfully pivoting from the planned café to the food truck, LMM was able to maintain one of the important training components and revenue centers in the workforce development program.

“The entire workforce development department is roughly 60% self-funded through revenue centers and social enterprise activities, including the Metro45 food truck, kitchen takeovers, and [LMM’s] Central Kitchen meals for the homeless.” Marks explains. “The rest is funded by grants and donations.”

Additionally, Marks says the organization’s Central Kitchen provides high-volume cooking experiences for the trainees, while partnerships with places like City Club of Cleveland for catering and Marble Room for fine dining, round out the plethora of potential job placement sites.

Marks wears a lot of hats in the organization, but you’re likely to find him working on the food truck along with the rest of the staff, simply because he is passionate about the program and the work.

The son of a chef, Marks grew up helping his father in the kitchen and earned his BA in criminal justice at The Ohio State University. He says leading the workforce development program and culinary social enterprise is the perfect fit for his background and talents.

“Homelessness, food insecurity, and the need for highly supportive training programs are universal, it’s not just an urban concern,” says Marks. “We hope that the truck will advocate, spur conversation, and create potential partnerships while sharing best practices for more programs to be put in place addressing these needs.”

A threefold mission
LMM has been integrating its programming with culinary arts and social enterprise for more than a decade. The 50-year-old non-profit founded the Central Kitchen in 2011 at the LMM Men’s Shelter at 2100 Lakeside to feed 1,000 to 1,500 people each day in six LMM shelters across the city.

Over the years, LMM has found the hospitality industry an effective method for workforce training and as path to employment.

“Culinary arts and hospitality have always been a career pathway with extremely low barriers to entry,” says Marks. “The industry is very reentry friendly and remains a merit-based employment opportunity. Essentially if you can cook most restaurants or cafés will hire you based on your skills—not on your background.”
LMM began its workforce development program in 2016, operating a board certified culinary school, which is validated by the American Culinary Federation. The six-month certificate requires 144 hours of classroom learning and 280 hours of hands-on food service industry experience.

Anyone can apply for the program. “We currently have an application in with the [Ohio] Department of Education to allow students to use their Pell grants to pay tuition,” Marks says.  “Many of our students are referred from other agencies.” 

Cuyahoga County Jobs and Family Services (JFS), which is the local manager of the Ohio Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, has partnered with LMM as an education and training partner. The partnership grants access to workforce development funding from the US Department of Agriculture.

Chopping for Change students with Program Director Malika Kidd.“They refer county residents currently receiving benefits to educational programs like ours to gain skills and find employment, ultimately eliminating the need for food assistance,” Marks explains. 

Some of the culinary students also participate in other LMM social programs, like Chopping for Change, a pre-release program for incarcerated women in which students come to LMM from prison for five days each week for counseling, support services, and culinary arts training.

The Chopping for Change program was recently highlighted in the documentary film “Apart.”

Chopping for Change students prepare meals in Central Kitchen for those experiencing homelessness. The experience fulfills the hands-on component of the culinary program. Past students have also gained experience in serving the public through the former Comeback Café in the Virgil Brown building on Payne Avenue and the former Blazing Bistro, which was set up inside a recycled shipping container on East 9th Street.

Serving shelter residents
Metro45 makes weekly visits to the 2100 Lakeside shelter to provide the 400 residents there with the dignity and normalcy of placing an order from the food truck—at no cost to them. The costs of the meals are paid for by donors.

When Metro45 is at 2100 Lakeside, residents can also find out about additional assistance through LMM’s social enterprise programs.

“We have had a number of residents engage in training and look to continue to strengthen that pipeline.” says Sering.  “Several residents have taken advantage of receiving their ServSafe Manager designation, an industry recognized credential endorsed by the Ohio Department of Education for careers in hospitality and tourism.”

“It’s been a really positive experience for our shelter residents,” says Sering. “They get to break out of the normal routine inside the shelter and order off of the menu specials. Everyone looks forward to the food truck visit. I’ll call it like it is—food trucks are just plain fun!”

Culinary student working in the kitchen.Community partnerships
LMM has partnered with Midtown Booth’s Tavern in Lakewood on a kitchen takeover project.  Marks lives in the neighborhood and became acquainted with owners Tre and Debbie Lamb when they acquired the location in 2011.

The Booths Tavern kitchen chef is off on Mondays, which allowed room for the creation of LMM’s weekly #MondaysMatter event from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., when tavern patrons can order online from the Metro45 menu. “LMM agreed to take the kitchen over every Monday night starting December 13, 2021.” says Marks. 

Kitchen takeovers are a way for Food Trucks to extend their operations and introduce their menu to new audiences. “Utilizing the hash tag #MondaysMatter to spur interest and the uniqueness of our programming and social enterprise operations, the owners donated the space for our use.”  Marks continues. “The concept is picking up traction as a viable revenue center and allowed a place to have staff continue to work in the Food Truck offseason.”

Marks says they recently partnered with the Music Settlement’s The Bop Stop. “We just launched our Bop Stop kitchen collaboration.” Marks says. “We are taking over the Bop Stop kitchen for every live show. We are so excited to partner with The Music Settlement on this project.”

Working together to help each other
LMM leaders say the Metro45 Food Truck is just another way the agency assists those who need help with workforce development, housing and shelter, and health and wellness.

“The pandemic highlighted how quickly a stable situation can quickly erode into a hunger crisis.” says Marks.  “That’s an issue too important to not get ahead of right now before we face another acute crisis.” 

LMM’s communications director Starr says the truck is a great way to feed the hungry, while also providing an easy, affordable way for someone to make a difference.

“We hope people will walk away from the food truck with the knowledge that they’re giving back while eating a great meal,” she says. “The proceeds go back into something tangible they just witnessed—the training of an untapped workforce of individuals who face employment barriers, but who are ready to gain skills and conquer the hospitality business as a career. We cook, we train, we empower, and we serve—in more ways than one. Great food. Better story.”

Starr adds that word is getting around. “From food truck parks to breweries, new faces are inquiring about what we do at LMM and booking for their own corporate and private events,” she says.

Look for the Metro45 Food Truck every Thursday between 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. at Lakewood Truck Park for the remainder of the year. Summer festivals and events are currently being booked

To book the food truck for catering at your event, call (216) 658-4608. Follow Metro45 on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter to learn more.
 

Read more articles by Kelly Quinn Sands.

Kelly Quinn Sands is a freelance writer, digital content professional, lifelong Cleveland resident, and Cleveland State University alumna. When she’s not busy behind her keyboard, you will often find her behind her guitar writing songs or outside tending to her garden.