‘I’m not going to judge’: JSO officer turned pizzeria owner serves up slices and second chances

It’s not a secret, making a quality gourmet pizza comes with careful prep work. But at La Cucina Italiana in Arlington, the business model goes far beyond serving up a good slice. That’s exactly what the owner, Gregory Hernandez, intended when took the place over in August.

“I get to help while I’m here, I’ve had certain situations where people have called up and asked for food,” Hernandez said. “And I’ve told them they can come in, get food, and they’ve asked for jobs.”

In other words, whether you’re stopping in for a quick bite, or hard at work, you’re so much more than where you come from. Hernandez says if there’s one thing he believes in, it’s second chances. He understands that better than most.

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“So, I have an employee that I met in my other job,” Hernandez said. “And how we met was, I arrested him.”

Officer Gregory Hernandez is a 4-year veteran of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and a trained negotiator. For privacy reasons, News4jax is not naming the employee. Hernandez said after the man was released, they had a chance encounter sometime later while he was on duty. During their conversation, he learned the man was from Philadelphia. Hernandez grew up in New York City. Interestingly enough, the conversation turned to pizza.

“I told him we got the best New York pizza. He said he’ll be the judge,” Hernandez said with a smile. “He tried it one time and then he said, ‘are you hiring?’ I said, ‘yeah’. So, he applied, and I gave him a job.”

Hernandez says since the man’s first day at work, he’s been a reliable, dedicated employee.

“There are times where he might be under the weather, and he wants to come in,” Hernandez explained. “I have to yell at him and tell him, ‘it’s a job, you come first.’”

Hernandez has other stories of helping people who stop in. That includes people who are down on their luck and in need of some help.

“In exchange for helping out in the kitchen, I’ve offered to feed their family, because that’s what we do,” Hernandez said.

As a police officer and negotiator, Hernandez is trained to follow his instincts. At the restaurant, that means one thing: no judgment.

“I don’t base somebody off their past, I base somebody off what they show me now,” Hernandez said. “Nobody’s perfect, everybody falls. They get up, if I can be part of you getting up and helping you move forward, I’m going to do that.”

Hernandez also told News4jax his personal bills are paid through his job with the JSO. He personally does not make any money from the restaurant.

“I do not make a cent from here. Everything goes to keeping the lights on, our food, and our staff,” Hernandez said. “Our main priority is making sure the staff gets paid.”

Hernandez doesn’t even have to go far from work–to work. He is stationed at JSO Sub Station District 2 in Arlington. The restaurant is located within the same shopping plaza. In fact, it’s a couple of doors down. Hernandez wants to make one thing clear: making arrests, patrolling the streets, and in his case, negotiating, are a small part of protecting and serving.

Prior to serving with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Hernandez was a police officer up north and also worked in corrections. He is also a veteran of the United States Navy.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be in this department where you get to choose the type of cop that you want to be,” Hernandez said. “It’s given me opportunities to do things I didn’t get in other departments. I’ve been able to be a big brother in the Big Brother program. I’ve been able to volunteer at churches, and here, my command has supported me.”

He has a message for those working to turn their lives around, especially those with a past.

“You’ll never know until you try,” Hernandez said. “The worst thing somebody can tell you is no, and that’s it.”

He insists there are many more officers like himself, working to help others get back on their feet. He encourages everyone to be part of the solution.

“You can’t change the world,” Hernandez said. “I’m not going to be able to, I’m just one person. But there’s a lot of us out there, we wear the uniform.”

Whether in one uniform or the other, Hernandez aims to give second chances and change lives for the better. La Cucina Italiana is located at 9119 Merrill Road, suite 17 in Jacksonville’s Arlington neighborhood.

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