Smoking bans' effects mixed in Wisconsin
Some restaurants are getting new customers now that nonsmoking ordinances are in full force in eight Wisconsin communities, but others are hurting -- including one that closed after patronage slumped.
``Probably most restaurateurs feel little if any effect when there is a smoking ban, but there are definite losers,'' said Ed Lump, vice president and chief executive at Wisconsin Restaurant Association. He estimated that 20 percent have lost business.
Since 1993, eight Wisconsin communities have enacted restaurant smoking ordinances. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Office on Smoking and Health, about 24 percent of the state's adults smoke.
One casualty of the ordinance, Country Kitchen in Middleton, was forced to close after a 30 percent drop in business, said Dennis LaVenture, Vice President of Operations for Country Kitchen International, based in Madison. It closed about a year after the 1996 ordinance went into effect, LaVenture said.
The largest drop-off came from late-night business, because many smokers visited then, he said. Also, the Middleton ordinance doesn't allow separate areas for smoking.
``I don't smoke. The president of the company doesn't smoke. Not many people smoke, but we don't think it's a level playing field,'' LaVenture said. ``We want the customers to decide.''
Many restaurant owners in the eight communities --Middleton, Madison, Shorewood Hills, Fond du Lac, La Crosse, Ashland, Eau Claire and Kenosha -- say smoking rules should be statewide because it would be more fair.
But Rep. Frank H. Urban, R-Brookfield, who is the chairman of the Assembly Public Health Committee, said he wouldn't support such legislation because residents throughout the state wouldn't back it.
Some of the ordinances have hardship provisions, so that if a restaurant is adversely affected, it can be exempt for a certain period of time.
Eau Claire's provision says if business dropped more than 15 percent in the six months after the ordinance took effect, the business could request a temporary one-year exemption.
Racy D'Lene's Very Coffee Lounge was granted an exemption after business dropped 22 percent in six months and 27 percent from the same period the year before, said Tracy Pojman, one of the owners.
``It was just for the business' survival, bottom line,'' Pojman said.
Before the ordinance, the coffeeshop had at least a 5 percent sales increase a year since it opened in 1993, Pojman said.
A provision in La Crosse's ordinance allowed three restaurants to be exempt because it would have cost them more than $4,000 to build walls to separate smoking and nonsmoking sections and have separate air-flow systems.
The remaining communities do not have the provision, did not have any exemption requests or haven't had the ordinance long enough to determine its effect.
The House of Gerhard in Kenosha lost two part-time, smoking bartenders because of the ordinance that took effect Dec. 15.
One of them, Max Schrader, 53, said he quit largely because he didn't want to leave the bar unattended while he smoked outside.
``I work all day in a nonsmoking environment,'' said Schrader, a teacher by day and 19-year employee at the restaurant. ``I'm not going to work another seven to eight hours at night'' without smoking.
Despite losing two employees, owner Dick Rudin has been surprised by patrons' response.
``All in all, I think it's more a positive for us than a negative,'' Rudin said. He said he has not seen any effect on overall business.
The restaurants that can still allow smoking -- in most cases the ones that are considered bars -- are the real winners, Lump said.
One of those thriving is Mogie's Pub in Eau Claire, where an ordinance took effect last May.
``We have picked up customers at the expense of those that can't sell alcohol,'' said John Mogensen, one of the owners. He said business increased about 5 percent since the ban started.
``I can't say that business increased because of smoking, but I know business hasn't gone down,'' he said.
Jean Ylitalo, kitchen worker at Michael's in Ashland, said the restaurant bar and restaurant areas are separated by a wall and door.
``No one is complaining because there are a lot of people that were offended with smoke blowing in their face while they were eating,'' Ylitalo said. ``We have not had a problem, no problem whatsoever.''