The regulars at Sandwiches By George!, a popular carryout on Rte. 40, call it the "Cheers" of Ellicott City. But judging by the number of folks in blue uniforms at the counter on any given day, the scene looks more like the coffee room at television's Hill Street station.
Among the hundreds of people who crowd into the carryout every day for soups and sandwiches are scores of employees from the county's criminal justice system. They come from all levels and areas of law enforcement -- undercover investigators, judges, lawyers, radio dispatchers, patrol officers and former officers, filing in to the tiny carryout for doughnuts in the morning, sandwiches in the afternoon and coffee and kibbutzing when their shifts are done.
Set back from a highway crowded with flashing neon, George's, marked only by a small sign, is easy to miss. The best way to find it is to follow the squad cars.
"You usually can't get in at lunch time," said Sgt. Angus Park, sitting at an already packed counter at 11:30 a.m. Park, who is the police department spokesman, is a 16-year veteran of the force and has been dining at George's for as many years.
George's is a haven for home cooking amid the fast-food jungle on Rte. 40. Customers can usually count on owner George Kreis to serve them. His three employees, who Kreis said, love to "cut up and carry on" with the customers, know most of the folks who walk through the door and usually have their favorite sandwiches under way before the customers reach the counter.
Kreis estimates that he serves 3,000 cups of coffee a week. His customers serve almost as much gossip. Here diners discuss family affairs, argue about the Orioles pitching staff, swap jokes and sell raffle tickets. And members of the police department and government employees return to George's for primarily the same reason that others have been flocking there for 26 years: atmosphere.
Howard County Assistant State's Attorney Dwight Thompson picks up lunch and the local news at George's about three times a week. "It's a convivial place," he said.
So is it a place for high-level power lunching over ham and cheese and cold cut subs? "No, it's too small and too open," Thompson said. "It's really a place for meeting and greeting the people I work with who I don't get to see very often. It's a good mix of people from the criminal justice system." Traffic Sgt. Tim Porter can't remember exactly when he started coming but says it's been at least 18 years. To longtime regulars like him, George's is a bar without booze and a place to get good food fast with friendly service.
"Most of the time when you're in uniform in a restaurant it's like being in a fishbowl -- everybody stares. At George's it's relaxed; you can enjoy yourself," he said.
Kreis is usually positioned, apron-clad, at the counter greeting customers. "He's like a good friend," Porter said.
In times of local crisis Kreis has been there, he said, with hearty sandwiches and hot coffee, bringing provisions to rescue workers during Hurricane Agnes and dinner to workers who were trapped in the County Administration Building during a snowstorm.
The roots of Kreis' relationship with the police force go back to the days when there were more acres of pasture than parking lots on Rte. 40 and lunch spots were scarce. In 1962 Kreis' father opened a doughnut and coffee shop in the garage area of a former Mobil station. Four years later his father died, and Kreis took over the business at the age of 19. Members of the Howard County Police Department, when then numbered 25, would drop by for a quick cup of coffee on their way to their posts, Kreis said.
The tradition grew as the police force and county government expanded. Now even though there are dozens of eateries to choose from in the area, many police officers and county employees dine at George's. "We always know when there's a county holiday," Kreis said. "Business really drops."
Park said that George's has the strongest following among older officers. "George's predates McDonald's, Roy Rogers and Dunkin Donuts around here. The recruits grew up on McDonald's, so that's where they go."
About 10 years ago, the police chief didn't look so kindly on his force congregating at George's. A memo was sent out telling officers not to stop there because of the image it created, recalled Porter, who said the chief worried that people driving by the roadside carryout would see the squad cars and wonder if the police force was taking a coffee break instead of catching lawbreakers.
"This isn't the case. We stop there when we're off duty or on lunch break," Porter said.
The order has long since been forgotten.
On a recent evening as a few customers were finishing off their last cups of coffee in the darkened carryout, Kreis pointed at the center of the room and described the environment he tried to create.
"If we had a checkerboard and a potbellied stove there, that would about sum us up. We're like a big family," he said.