When Gregory Hernandez isn’t making arrests in Jacksonville, Florida, he’s making pizza—and, whenever he can, a positive difference in the lives of the people he arrests.
Hernandez is an officer in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office as well as the owner of La Cucina Italiana, which fires up New York- and Sicilian-style whole pies and slices. Hernandez purchased the restaurant, formerly called EJ’s Italian Bistro, in August and sees it as another opportunity to protect and serve his community.
“I get to help while I’m here,” Hernandez told News4Jax. “I’ve had certain situations where people have called up and asked for food, and I’ve told them they could come in and get food. And they’ve asked for jobs or [food] in exchange for helping out in the kitchen. I’ve offered to feed their family and things like that because that’s what we do.”
Hernandez, who grew up in New York City, even hired a man he once had to arrest. After running into that same man later, they struck up a friendly conversation about New York pizza. “I said, we’ve got the best New York pizza. He was, like, he’ll be the judge.” After trying Hernandez’s pizza, the man asked if La Cucina Italiana was hiring. “I said, yeah. So he applied, and I gave him a job. And since day one, he’s just been…dedicated. Like, there are times when he might be under the weather and he wants to come in. And I have to yell at him and tell him, ‘It’s a job. You come first.’”
As a cop, Hernandez has seen it all—and he believes everyone deserves a second chance. “I don’t [judge] somebody based on their past…[but rather] off what they show me now. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody falls. You get up. If I can be a part of you getting up and helping you move forward, then I’m gonna do that.”
Like a classic New York pizza joint, La Cucina Italiana isn’t exactly a flashy sort of place. The menu is simple and down-to-earth—nothing fancier than a BBQ Chicken Pizza (diced chicken, onions, mozzarella and BBQ sauce) and the Spicy Steak Pizza (steak, onions, spicy pepper Jack cheese and marinara).
The restaurant is not so much a for-profit business for Hernandez anyway, since police work pays his bills. He’s more concerned about creating opportunities for folks in Jacksonville. “I do not make a cent from here,” he said. “Everything goes to keeping the lights on, the food and our staff. Our main priority is making sure our staff gets paid.”
Meanwhile, he also works in the local Big Brother program and volunteers at his church. He’s convinced that everyone can bounce back from their mistakes, no matter how egregious. “You’ll never know until you try,” he told News4Jax. “The worst thing someone can tell you is no. And that’s it. You can’t change the world….I’m one person. But there’s a lot of us out there who wear a uniform” and truly adhere to the motto, “protect and serve.”