Police officers in pursuit of a good meal find offerings aplenty

A police commander in Pakistan's Punjab province made news last week when he ordered tens of thousands of officers to diet or quit their jobs in the field. At issue: At least 50 percent of the Punjab police force is overweight. Still, Pakistan ranks 165th on the Forbes list of fattest countries. � Who weighs in at No. 1? Cue the Star-Spangled Banner and raise the Stars and Stripes. � If Pakistani officers are chomping more than their share of chapatis, does that mean American police officers are delving too deep in the doughnuts?

According to St. Petersburg Police Department spokesman Sgt. Mike Puetz, the cops-and-doughnuts connection is a vestige from a former era.

"I suspect it started simply because back in the early days restaurants closed early and the only thing that was open late hours were doughnut shops. So that was the only thing available to officers working the late shift. Now I'd say it's a stereotype that remains, but the majority of officers don't frequent doughnut shops."

St. Pete Beach Police Department Chief David Romine has received his share of doughnut razzing over the years.

"I don't get tired of it. It's part of the fun of the banter. But I'm going to tell you, I think it's a myth. The majority of police officers today are fit and health conscious."

So just what and where are the police eating? We spoke with officers, and the restaurants that serve them, about some favorite local spots.

'Get up and go'

Called a 10-58 in St. Petersburg and a 10-10 in Tampa, on-the-job mealtimes present certain challenges for officers.

First and foremost, says Sgt. Rick Shaw of the St. Petersburg Police Department, meals are limited to 30 minutes and "if there's a hot call, you've got to get up and go."

Romine echoes this, saying, "I'd say about two-thirds of officers take their meal breaks at restaurants, but at ones they know have quicker service. Some restaurants know that officers have time constraints and will give them quicker service. It's not often that you get called away mid-meal, but if you do, you get up and go answer the call. The meal stays there, and hopefully you can go back and finish it."

For this reason, many officers prefer buffets or quick-serve and grab-and-go spots. Still, Puetz says on-duty officers are leery of too much fast food.

"Because an officer has a limited amount of time to eat, he or she might go for fast food because it's quickly prepared so you have more time to consume it. But most officers try to avoid the standard burger fare. Chick-fil-A is popular with the police, and Chipotle would be another."

Sgt. Michael Stout of the Tampa Police Department gives a solid example of why "lighter" fare may be more prudent than major red meat.

"Now in my role I'm a detective sergeant, but back when I was in uniform there was a lot to be said for eating things that are lighter and healthier. Hops used to be very good to law enforcement. I once had a big steak there and within 30 minutes I was in a pursuit. I thought I was going to die. You just don't know what you're going to be doing when you leave a restaurant."

Sometimes food gets consumed right in the cruiser, or "mobile office," as Puetz calls it. He says the cruiser can provide an extra bit of private time: "An officer in uniform is very identifiable. Some people take the opportunity (of seeing an officer in a restaurant) to ask an officer a question or tell about a problem they've had. It's an opportunity to ask about their neighbor's barking dog."

There are other delicate considerations when officers choose a restaurant.

"I've run into cooks that I've arrested and then hoped that they weren't going to spit in my food," Shaw says. "A colleague was in the drive-though for a taco place and they accidentally left the speaker on and he heard someone say they were going to do that."

Shaw lists off a number of places that he and St. Petersburg colleagues frequent: the Steak 'n Shake on Park Street N, the Denny's on 34th Street S, and Ferg's.

"A lot of our regular spots have gone by the wayside, other than Ferg's," he says. "It's convenient and a quick walk from the station."

Owner Mark Ferguson doesn't think it's just a matter of convenience, "because we have great food. They always sit together — I see the older officers eating salads; the younger, just-starting-out officers, a lot of them eat wings and burgers. It makes other diners feel safe to see them there. I live a sheltered life."

Welcoming to officers

Although a group of assembled officers may make citizens feel comfortable, it's not technically allowed on the clock.

Puetz explains.

"We have rules about the number of officers in one location at a time. We're not supposed to have more than two. I can't speak to other police departments, but you can't have all your officers off duty at one time, and placing all your personnel in one location is risky. And citizens could find it objectionable."

Nonetheless, there are some restaurants that seem overtly welcoming to officers, on or off the clock: the Columbia in Ybor City, the aptly named Precinct Pizza in Channelside, Caribbean Cafe in St. Petersburg's west end, Skyway Jack's in St. Petersburg, and Nicko's Fine Foods and Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe, both in Seminole Heights.

Despite the prohibition on gatherings of in-uniform officers, Champions' BBQ on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg has become a hangout.

Owner Fred Fleming has his theories as to why.

"We were giving the military, firefighters and police a 50 percent discount until someone from headquarters called and told us to stop" a while ago.

In the wake of the death of three St. Petersburg officers last year, Fleming and crew raised more than $2,000 for the families of the slain officers.

"We've gotten a reputation amongst firefighters and police. One night we had five fire trucks out there. For one thing, we put their food ahead of everyone else, because they may get a call and have to leave. We go out of our way. We're so thankful for their help in this community."

All the officers we spoke with for this story say they don't take what they call "gratuities" from businesses in the community, despite frequent offers.

"I get offers almost every single day," Romine says. "It's against rules and regulations. I always tell people that the offer is appreciated, that I appreciate that the offer is made in good faith. That's not the issue — it's the appearance of favoritism or something that will generate an expectation of a return."

Many other officers corroborate this longtime battle with well-meaning business owners, but most agree that the range of dining options has improved dramatically in recent years.

Stout, on the Tampa force for the past 11 years, reminisces.

"When I first started, there was maybe a handful of options downtown. You had the little places that were just open for lunch. As residents have moved in downtown, it has created a better atmosphere for restaurants. And if you were on a midnight shift you just had a couple of options. There was an IHOP, and the Egg Platter on Gandy Boulevard, which was just as thrilling as the name sounds."

Romine is equally bullish about new developments.

"Let me say one thing about St. Pete Beach. There's a large element of the economics of this place that involves the tourist industry. If you leave this island hungry, thirsty or bored, it's your own fault."

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.

Police officers in pursuit of a good meal find offerings aplenty 06/26/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 11:35am]

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