No-Smoking Clubs, Downtown bars snub cigarettes in bid to attract more patrons
Standing next to a heat lamp outside the Tavernacle, Alisha Sears drags on her Marlboro Light and looks longingly inside.
There, the night's crowd sits at tables, drinking cocktails, swaying and singing to a standard tune at any piano bar: Billy Joel's "Piano Man." What is missing, much to the disappointment of Sears, is another staple of private clubs -- cigarette smoke.
Try most any new bar around town and the request is the same: If you want to smoke, step outside.
Clubs and bars may be the last public places in Utah where it is legal to light up, but a new breed of owners hopes to turn a profit by promoting their establishments as smoke-free. Consider: The Spur in Park City and Salt Lake City's Tavernacle, Club Splash, Pop's Place, Natalie's and the SkyBox Sports Grill and Arena have all recently opened as non-smoking private clubs, though they do maintain outdoor posts for smokers.
Some owners say they did it in anticipation of a future state law outlawing smoking in private clubs, as California and a handful of communities in Massachusetts have done. (More than half the states, including Utah, ban smoking in restaurants, according to the American Cancer Society.)
The Legislature debated an anti-smoking bar bill last week, but it was quickly stubbed out to the relief of managers of clubs that allow smoking.
But mostly, owners of the new bars say they are looking out for themselves, their employees and customers who are sick of breathing second-hand smoke -- known to cause cancer -- and having to contend with clothes that reek of smoke for days.
Patrons of such clubs like the decision. Business has been brisk on weekends, managers say, though the numbers might level off now that the Olympics are over.
"It shouldn't even be a question," said David Madsen, basking in the fresh air at Club Splash while watching the Grammy Awards on Wednesday. "It's not good for you. Not that alcohol's good for you, but at least I can control the intake."
Outside on Splash's Las Vegas-style smoking patio -- complete with Greek statues, a disco ball and mirrors -- most of the smokers say they like the idea of stepping out to light up.
Rick Dean, a smoker, said the haze even bothers him. At his regular bar, Radio City in downtown Salt Lake, "it gets so bad I go person to person, 'Do you have eye drops? Do you have eye drops?' I love fresh air. When you actually go outside [to smoke] you sober up."
Noting that few Utah adults smoke -- just 13 percent, according to federal figures -- Tom Buxton, CEO of the SkyBox, hopes his business decision will bring in more customers.
"In Salt Lake City, a lot of people don't go into private clubs because of the smoking element. It's not the drinking element they mind. It's just kind of a messy habit, you know, the cigarettes left behind, the butts. There just seems to be a movement underway, people are just tired of it."
As for Jerry Johnson, he is already tired of non-smoking bars. Puffing on a Camel at the Zephyr, the Salt Laker said he checked out one of the non-smoking joints and left within 10 minutes. "Smoking and bars, they go together."
That's what Rich Ipaktchian counted on when he opened the Sky Bar on the 13th floor of the WestCoast Hotel. He wanted to create an upscale club, where customers must dress up to enter and can sit down to eat steak.
And even though he "hates" smoking because it hurts his sinuses, it goes with the scene. He would be sabotaging business if he showed smokers the door.
"It's silly -- you freeze your [butt] off to smoke and separate yourself from your crowd," Sears said.
Kristauf's Social Club, a martini bar, started out as non-smoking but extinguished the policy after just six weeks because customers wanted their cigarettes.
"This is the type of environment where people want to smoke cigars occasionally. We've had a few pipe smokers," said Ipaktchian. "They feel like they're escaping whatever doldrums of Utah they're caught in, whether school, work, family, whatever."
Richelle Charles, a bartender at The Oyster Bar in Salt Lake City, would like to get away from the smoke at her workplace.
She testified on behalf of a bill to ban smoking, noting she has a smoker's cough and raspy voice though she never has pressed a cigarette to her lips.
She told lawmakers she doesn't want to quit her job because she likes her coworkers and the customers, who she thinks would be reasonable about taking smoking breaks. "They could smoke right outside."