A former New York City paramedic brings Big Apple pizza to Tampa.
For Rick Drury, life as a New York paramedic was always exciting. Following the tragic events of September 11, however, Drury was forced to reevaluate his career in such an unpredictable field. Dust and debris from the wreckage at Ground Zero caused nagging respiratory complications, and the fast-paced, high-pressure life of a big-city paramedic was no longer an option.
Drury decided that a location change was necessary, but after an unsatisfying stint as a paramedic in Tampa, Florida, the restaurant industry came calling. Precinct Pizza (precinctpizza.com), located in Tampa’s Channelside Bay Plaza, is the brainchild of Drury and his wife, Jessica. The pizzeria was created as an homage to New York-style pizza and the city’s devoted public servants.
Change in Latitude, Not Attitude
As the warm, humid air of Tampa relieved his lungs, Drury was adamant about Precinct Pizza being an authentic representation of a New York pizzeria, and the remnants of Drury’s days as a paramedic are evident in the attitude and atmosphere. The restaurant’s logo is based on the badge Drury wore on his uniform in his previous career, and emergency medical equipment can be seen hanging on the walls. Decorative signs with mock-confrontational sayings (“Welcome to New York–Give us your freakin’ money,” and “You are entering Riker’s Island”) present customers with a slice of New York’s famous abrasive humor to go along with the New York-style pizza. Meanwhile, paintings of the New York skyline add to the metropolitan theme of Precinct Pizza, and deliveries are even made in a replica of a New York City ambulance.
A bustling location was of utmost importance for the business. Opened in August 2006, Precinct Pizza benefited from being the only pizzeria in the Channelside entertainment area. “This area is very high-profile,” says Drury. “It’s the Times Square of Tampa.” Proximity to the St. Pete Times Forum has also provided Precinct with plenty of out-of-town customers who often visit for events such as hockey games and concerts. Likewise, the nearby port often brings in tourists fresh off the cruise ships eager for a hot slice and a cold drink.
Drury says his pizzeria’s success is partially attributed to the family-friendly atmosphere he provides in an area filled with nightclub-style restaurants. “Precinct Pizza is homestyle pizzeria, where people can sit down and have a nice meal with their children,” he explains.
And, although Drury had to abandon his former profession in the emergency medical field, he still appreciates the importance of emergency workers and police in the lives of everyday Americans. For that reason, Precinct Pizza started the Fallen Heroes Foundation. “It was started after the death of two police officers in Tampa,” Drury explains. “It shook us—I felt they were my brothers.” Precinct Pizza collects money in the restaurant and writes a check matching all donations collected in the store.
A New York-Sized Menu
Precinct Pizza offers an extensive menu, starting with appetizers such as the popular Fireman’s Wild Wings and salads including the Checkered Cab Cobb. A variety of pasta dishes and sandwiches (including burgers and heroes) is also available. The pizza, however, is the secret to Precinct’s success. The dough is handmade daily and includes a special ingredient: honey. “The honey gives the dough a nice, sweet texture and crunch,” says Drury. Precinct offers many standard specialty pies—the Flawless Cheese and the Margherita, for example. Drury is most proud, though, of Precinct’s distinctive specialty pizzas, which give customers some unique options: The Bambino Blue Cheese Pie, topped with a homemade blue cheese dressing, and the 5 Borough Bar-B-Q Chicken Pie are popular with customers who are looking for something other than the typical fare.
Precinct’s pizzas are available in 10’’, 14’’ and 18’’ sizes and can be enhanced with a multitude of toppings. On the beverage side of the menu, both bottled and draft beers, along with a large selection of wine, are offered. Drury contends that the decision to not offer a full bar was a business strategy meant to differentiate Precinct Pizza from other area restaurants that rely heavily on nightlife and alcohol sales.
Precinct Pizza does roughly an equal amount of business between delivery and dine-in, but its catering business is often the biggest moneymaker. Heaping helpings of salad, massive strombolis, 8’-long heroes and many other options are all available on the catering menu, and Drury notes that many local businesses have become faithful customers of Precinct for their catering needs.
Celebrities use the catering option, too: Drury recalls an event in March that brought country star Taylor Swift into Precinct Pizza with a huge order; she bought her staff and handlers nearly $3,000 worth of food. Swift is just one of Precinct’s many famous clients, which include Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball players and even the late Yankee patriarch and Tampa resident George Steinbrenner. “Steinbrenner came back and gave us a lot of memorabilia as a thank-you,” Drury recalls. “It was really an honor.”
Precinct Pizza was originally associated with NYPD Pizza (nypdpizza.com), but the decision was made to continue as an independent pizzeria rather than in association with a franchise. Drury, a true New Yorker at heart, says with confidence, “I finally realized that maybe I’m a better boss than an employee. I’m better at giving orders than taking them.”
Precinct Pizza has only one location at this time, but Drury says that expansion has been a possibility since the inception of the restaurant. There has been interest in franchising the Precinct Pizza name, but for now Drury says that one restaurant is plenty. Precinct Pizza is also working on implementing an online ordering service, but it’s still under construction. “Because of the extensive nature of our menu, we want to make sure everything is completely prepared before we unveil the online ordering function,” Drury notes. “We don’t want any miscues or kinks, because it might affect the quality of the food.”
Precinct might also want to add an online ordering feature for its merchandise, which has proven to be very attractive to customers and further enforces its marketing and brand recognition. From shirts and hats to pens and pint glasses, Precinct offers customers a chance to go home with a souvenir of any size.
Drury says competition in the Channelside area has come and gone but never experienced much success. “They simply can’t compete with my food,” says Drury. And, although Drury is the face of the restaurant (his name and picture appear on the box and menu), he is quick to note that his wife, Jessica, is a vital part of thebusiness’ success.
Like any good New Yorkers, the Drury duo is always open to a challenge. Often,when native New Yorkers step off the cruise ships and spot Precinct Pizza, they remain skeptical about a New York-style pizzeria so far from their natural habitat, but Drury welcomes their uncertainty with gusto. “They say, ‘We’re going to try your pizza and see if it’s as good as home,’” Drury says in a defiant Yonkers accent. “I say, ‘You try—you let me know.’ They all leave pretty happy.”
Whether through the names of menu items, like the Ellis Island Alfredo Pie, or the walls adorned with New York memorabilia, Precinct Pizza has all the panache and attitude to temporarily transport any customer from balmy Tampa to the hustle and bustle of Times Square.