Snuffed Out

Boise restaurants say smoking ban inequitable but rarely damaging to business


Most restaurateurs and barkeepers say they can breathe easy, since sales haven't significantly dropped in the year since the Idaho Clean Indoor Air Law went into effect. The bill that demanded snuffing tobacco use at nearly every indoor facility in the state was made law last July 1, making owners nervous that customers would be driven away. But most agree that hasn't happened.

Angell's Bar and Grill General Manager Sean Newell said he sees an average of 30 to 40 patrons going outside to smoke on the weekends. And while he said he hasn't seen some of his former regulars in a year, the ban has had little overall impact on business.

"A large percentage of people love the fact we are completely no smoking inside," he said. "And while a group of people were not at all pleased they had to go outside to smoke, they're used to it now."

According to the state Department of Health and Welfare, Idaho is one of 11 states whose restaurants are smoke-free. The smoking ban, introduced in the 2004 Legislature by Idaho Falls Republican Sen. Brent Hill, prohibits patrons from lighting up in any public facility except bowling alleys and establishments that do not allow minors. While most in the restaurant or bar industry say the change was a step in the right direction, some argue the law should be more equitable, affecting any type of establishment-not just those who check IDs.

"Our business has dropped a fair amount (since the ban)," said Bar Gernika owner Dan Ansotegui. "We could not allow minors into the bar, but we choose not to do that. I don't understand this bill. They should make the ban across the board so people can't pick and choose. It would make it more fair and be the same problem for all of us."

Bar Gernika server Rainey Spencer said the bar's solid core of smokers are not pleased with the ban. She said she's noticed business has stayed down, despite the patio filling up more with the warm weather. "We don't get the late drinkers who sit and smoke, and stay for hours," she said. "They go somewhere else where they can smoke and drink."

Across the street, Bardenay opts to kick minors out at 9 p.m. so patrons are allowed to smoke. Owner Kevin Settles said his approach is notably more rare than Ansotegui's, and he's considering banning smoking all together. Settles was a staunch opponent of the bill, lobbying against the proposal last year, debating Sen. Hill on television and working with restaurant and bar owners to stymie the move.

"They shouldn't be able to make that type of decision about my business," he said.

Settles said it took about six months for his business to bounce back from the first impact. "We lost our after-work, cocktail-hour group," he said. "Our customer base has adjusted to the ban, but I don't know if business is up because of that, or the general market condition."

Jim Parkinson, owner of the Piper Pub and Grill, said while he feared the short-term affect on his business would be negative, a year after the fact it has actually helped business. "People aren't congregating in places like they used to, and the smoke kept out families," he said. "Those people are coming out of the woodwork in mass, and now that the smoke barrier is gone, that market is available to us, when it wasn't before."

Parkinson agreed with Ansotegui that the ban "should have been across the board to make it a level playing field," comparing the law with other states and countries that banned smoking in every public place. But he said people's habits have changed before in the 16 years he's owned the pub.

"We had a group of people whose habits were to go to their favorite watering hole after work, talk with buddies, have a few drinks and smoke," he explained. "Since the ban, we've lost that group of folks who go to a place that allows smoking."

Quinn's Restaurant and Lounge on Vista Avenue has also seen more family business because of the ban. "Now most people come here to bring their kids," said server Angela Gibson. "We've noticed an increase in business from the bar side, too," referring to the separate area prohibiting minors. According to the Clean Indoor Air Law, a restaurant's smoking section must be completely walled off from ceiling to floor. Restaurants like Quinn's and Merritt's Country Cafe were forced to abandon their smoking section, divided by just a half wall.

Several cafe owners said they had considered changing their smoking policy on their own, but worried about the loss of business. Merritt's Country Cafe owner Mary Merritt and Jim's Cafe owner Dave Fellows agree they're glad the state shouldered the responsibility of enacting a smoking ban.

"We haven't lost any customers because we had to go smoke-free," Merritt said. In fact, she explained, "We couldn't have gone smoke-free on our own. It definitely would have hurt us if we had done it on our own. We would have made a lot of customers mad."

"I'm very glad the state enacted this law," Fellows said. "I would have liked to put in a smoking ban, but I didn't know how that would have affected business. It's a tough call, which decision to make; if we changed our smoking policy, I'm sure we would have upset people."

Near downtown Boise, breakfast-goers can still pay a dollar to become card-carrying members of Cool's Savon Cafe, "a private smoker's club." A stipulation written into the law allows smoking in buildings owned and operated by social, fraternal or religious organizations. Owner Clancy McCool said he has not received flak from lawmakers or law enforcement officials about his decision to turn the cafe into a social club, and that his membership roster is now about 600 smokers strong.

"People have the right to smoke," he said. "Most are happy we made this decision." McCool said a little more than half his customers smoke, and those that don't smoke don't seem to mind eating in the smoky restaurant. Not surprisingly, he's noticed more business because of the ban. "Several customers have broken from their traditional place of morning eatery because they can smoke here."