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As the smoke clears... how are bars doing?

The air's been clear for nearly four months; have you noticed? Restaurant and bar owners have, although most can't contribute any changes in business solely to the Freedom to Breathe Act. "The first month we did [notice it], and then we were kind...

The air's been clear for nearly four months; have you noticed?

Restaurant and bar owners have, although most can't contribute any changes in business solely to the Freedom to Breathe Act.

"The first month we did [notice it], and then we were kind of right back to normal after that," said Ken Jensen, owner of the Corral in Nelson, of the ban's impact.

Charlie Meyer, owner of Fat Daddy's in Alexandria, noticed it from the October 1 start. He lost a "handful of guys" who would stop in for the after-work happy hour.

"This is where they would let their hair down and have a cigarette," he said.

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Another fellow would write a $20 check every day after work. "Now I get him on his days off," Meyer said.

Although bowling makes up some of the difference, he's compensated for it by scheduling more events and building an enclosed smoking patio adjacent to the building. "They [smokers] do appreciate the fact that you're doing something," he said of the patio.

At Bug-A-Boo Bay on Lake L'Homme Dieu, owner Dave Bistodeau is waiting to see what happens in the next six to eight months.

"There are a lot of contributing factors at this time," he said. "This is a slower period of time; everyone's feeling that within the industry. It's really anybody's guess."

It's been hard to judge, too, if slower days at the Walleye Lodge in Osakis are the result of the smoking ban.

"It went into effect when our seasonal people were all closing up their cabins and going home," said Deb Schmidt, the restaurant's owner.

She has, however, noticed more unfamiliar faces stopping in for dinner and drinks. "We actually saw an increase in our food side."

That's not the case at Fat Daddy's, where Meyer hasn't seen an increase in non-smokers. "Will they make up the difference? Probably not," he said.

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Most customers - non-smokers and smokers alike - have welcomed the clear air.

"A lot of the people who don't smoke really enjoy the fact that we've gone smoke free," Bistodeau said. "It's sure nice coming in here in the morning."

Schmidt echoed that: "The non-smokers really like it. And, of course, the wait staff really, really like it because they don't have to mess with the ashtrays."

She's even heard from the smokers that they appreciate the non-smoking; some have even cut back.

Still, other smokers "complain all the time," Jensen, the Corral's owner, said. He added that many customers gripe about walking through the haze of smoke just outside the front door where smoking is permitted.

Despite the complaints, there have been no major compliance issues. Douglas County Public Health has only received two; and both were in October (one business wasn't aware of the law, and the other closed shortly thereafter).

"It's gone very, very well so far," said Todd Appel, county sanitarian who deals with the ban's enforcement. "I think people are going to get pretty well used to it."

After visiting both businesses that received complaints - done to validate or refute them - he issued each a "friendly warning."

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Not long after the law went into effect, both Jensen and Schmidt issued patrons several warnings as well (Bistodeau and Meyer haven't had any problems).

One man was kicked out of the Corral because he wouldn't put out his cigarette. And the "whole bar reacted" when another man, unaware of the new law, lit up at the Walleye Lodge.

Statewide, only one $1,000 fine has been issued - smokers at an Eden Prairie real estate office didn't heed a warning from health officials. Warning letters have been sent to 56 businesses, say state health officials.

Smoking customers are slowly starting to patronize Schmidt's establishment again. "We figured people would just get tired of sitting at home and looking at themselves in the mirror," she laughed.

"As long as it's on the same playing field [for all businesses], it's fair," Bistodeau said of the smoking ban.

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