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First Responders' Food Tab at RNC: $1.4 Million

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa businesses are beginning to tally the winners and losers at the Republican National Convention and it appears that caterers and restaurants who fed first responders may have garnered some of the bigger contracts.

The City of Tampa was charged with providing an estimated 114,000 meals to law enforcement and emergency services personnel, splitting the job -- with a total price of about $1.4 million -- among 20 businesses, some local and others national and regional. Exact figures for each business have not been released, but those who provided more food got a bigger piece of the pie.

Suzanne Perry, co-owner of Datz restaurant in Tampa, catered about 4,000 meals to first responders over the duration of the convention.

As for the net payoff, Perry cited labor and rentals such as a refrigerated semitrailer truck and three extra delivery vans as reasons the numbers may not be huge once all the bills have been paid.

"The numbers look big, but the margin was actually really small. The better money was in the events. We knew that in advance, of course, but wanted to be a part of things anyway."

Perry said the parameters for each meal were extremely specific, which left little room for creativity.

"For example, for a boxed lunch there had to be 8 ounces of meat, 7 ounces of fruit, 5 ounces of dessert, chips, 16 ounces of coffee and 16 ounces of other beverage. They had to be delivered and maintained at proper temperatures for approximately six hours as the police came in shifts. I had staff working around the clock 24 hours."

As Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said, "A lot of it was sandwiches."

Perry agreed. "It seems kind of boring, but doing sandwiches for that many required major effort. Inspectors were on site to ensure proper temperatures (were maintained) every step of the way. We bought several breads and tested several versions of sandwiches for holding power as there were many hours between sandwich construction and consumption. We finally opted to put little condiment packages in the boxes to alleviate sogginess."

Henry Gardner, general manager of Orange Blossom Catering in St. Petersburg, said his company did 10,000 meals in the four-day period, a contract that represents a large percentage of its August business. The first two days were boxed lunches, mostly sandwiches, but then "after two days of that they got tired of sandwiches and we made them hot meals. They called us the night before and asked us if we could do hot lunch for 700 people the next day."

Although Orange Blossom was approved as a first-responder caterer months ago, the actual specific deals didn't coalesce until "five to seven days before the convention," said Gardner, who until then thought his company had been overlooked for RNC contracts. But when they got the call, they leapt into action.

"We do it all the time. We are emergency response feeders."

Some of the trickiest parts of these catering contracts were the drop locations, according to Greg Spearman, director of purchasing for Tampa. Vendors weren't told the drop locations until late in the game, at which point caterers were asked to sign confidentiality agreements to preserve the safety of emergency personnel. Spearman estimated there were 20 feeding locations throughout the city, with additional locations in Pinellas County as well.

McElroy said, "Since we were anticipating high temperatures, we had established points all around the city. We had a couple dozen resting points in private businesses and high-rises and banks around town, and (emergency personnel) could pick up meals there."

Of the 114,000 meals, serving an estimated 5,000 first responders, there were lots of leftovers. Police officers took boxed lunches to the Salvation Army as well as to protesters in the temporary Romneyville. And, according to Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan Ministries, Tampa police and other groups brought leftover boxed lunches there as well, meals that were then sent out to Metropolitan Ministries' meal site partners in a four-county area.



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