The incident reportedly happened Monday at the Buffalo Grille location on Bissonnet.
Someone from the Houston Fire Department informed the restaurant's general manager that police officers standing outside while eating needed to leave, according to Buffalo Grille president John McAleer.
McAleer explained to ABC13 the restaurant is feeding all first responders for free during this COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the crisis, Buffalo Grille served a large number of law enforcement officers and offered them a 50 percent discount.
The general manager didn't feel comfortable telling the officers to leave, so McAleer said that's when a member of HFD asked them to instead.
"About 15 minutes later, another set of police officers were there and the fire marshal came and asked them to leave and wrote us a notice of violation, I believe is what it's called," McAleer said. "We were surprised about it, but it is what it is. If we are in violation of it, we'll take the notice."
The violation notice issued by the fire marshal's office was not a citation and no fines were issued.
On Thursday, Chief Sam Peña spoke on the incident and thanked Buffalo Grille for their help in resolving the issue.
His statement read, in part:
"Both departments (HFD and HPD) are working diligently to enforce the spirit of the County's Stay-Home order. With every one of the hundreds of complaint responses, the primary goal for HFD's Occupancy Task Force has been to achieve voluntary compliance with the order through information and education. We have been extremely successful in achieving this goal as was the case in this instance. Contrary to reports, the Buffalo Grille was not cited by the HFD Occupancy Task Force and there was no fees assessed. The complaint was resolved via notice of violation as required by the County's Order."
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Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told ABC13 that he spoke to Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who reiterated to him the warning did not carry a penalty. Acevedo added that he'll make sure to find out who the officers were and remind them that they also have to follow the rules.
McAleer says the restaurant's number 1 goal is to be able to feed first responders for free from April 1 to May 2. He said the meals are possible because of the generosity of an anonymous donor in the area.
"But the way we feel on it is it does not change our respect or support for the Houston Fire Department whatsoever. We've been supporters of them since '84. We sponsor golf tournaments and things like that, and that won't change even slightly the way we feel about the Houston Fire Department. We respect them greatly," he said.
McAleer also said it's his general manager's understanding that if this happens again, the general manager will go to jail.
"I believe that's a little much. I understand rules are rules and just like every restaurant in the City of Houston, we have tried our best to do everything and stay within what seems to be kind of fluctuating guidelines," McAleer told ABC13, adding his general manager was also told the officers couldn't even sit inside their patrol cars and eat.
Since the incident, the restaurant has chosen to display the notice of violation on the front counter, so that everyone will understand why customers can't sit outside.
"We have asked them not to sit the on adjoining patio, which is a common area, even though that's not our patio fully. We hope they understand there is zero tolerance even for police officers. I hate to think of the officers going to sit in their cars and eat," McAleer said, explaining that they were not required to display the notice. "At least we can show them, 'Look at this piece of paper. It says you can't do this.'"
McAleer added he first learned of what happened when someone sent a screenshot of a Facebook post from a customer, unhappy about the restaurant receiving the violation.
Though he didn't think much of the post at the time, the response quickly grew, and became intense, he said.
Still, his restaurant plans to remain neutral and follow the rules. He said the firefighters they've served for years have come to grab lunch and show their support.
"We don't want to police any first responders. All we want to do is thank them for doing their part," McAleer said, stressing his appreciation for all first responders. "We'll try to be diligent."
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