SW businesses plan post-smoking-ban strategies

Outdoor patios become hot -- literally

In the wake of the City Council's July 23 vote for an indoor smoking ban, Southwest restaurants, bars and coffee shops are struggling with what to do if and when their smokers leave.

"None of us thought it would pass -- it's shocking," said Rose Gran, assistant manager at Westrum's Tavern, 4415 Nicollet Ave., amid a haze of smoke from the bar. "It will leave us with two customers."

Christie Hiemenz, a manager at Bob's Java Hut, 2651 Lyndale Ave. S., is similarly worried about losing her biker clientele. "I'm concerned because a lot of our customers smoke," she said. "Caffeine and smoking kind of go hand in hand."

Westrum's bar-goers said they feel the same way about smoking and drinking. Westrum's Gran said of the ban, "We'll find a way around this because [otherwise] we'll go out of business," she said.

Although the ban doesn't take effect until March 31, some Southwest establishments have begun strategizing to keep their smokers, within the new law's constraints.

Keeping Southwest's smoking clientele

The earliest, most obvious strategy centers on outdoor patios, which the smoking ban doesn't cover. Several bars are considering adding propane heaters so smokers can smoke outside year-round.

Pete Crews, general manager at The Bull Dog Restaurant, 2549 Lyndale Ave. S., jokes that on some nights, it seems that "105 percent" of his patrons smoke. Crews thinks said patio seating will be the new key to business success in Minneapolis, and the Bull Dog already has a patio with propane heaters, so smokers can go out there to puff year-round.

Jolane Dahlheimer, owner of Plan B Coffeehouse, 2717 Hennepin Ave. S., is also glad she recently extended the shop's back patio and outdoor seating.

Dahlheimer said that for many independent coffee shops such as hers, letting customers smoke was the competitive draw against the Starbucks of the world.

"I just hope people will still come out and get coffee from the independent coffee shops," she said.

Given that smoking is allowed outdoors but not in, some business owners may be tempted to blur the line, making their outdoor spaces seem as "indoor" as possible.

Assistant City Attorney Henry Reimer says the city hasn't been confronted with the issue yet. However, the city licenses sidewalk caf/s and outdoor areas. Reimer said that under the existing ordinance, if smoke accumulates in an outdoor area, or if smoke flows into the building, the city could revoke the outdoor license.

For some businesses, such as those at Calhoun Square, patio room is scarce. Crews predicts the smoking ban will encourage bar-hopping, so smokers can get their fix walking from bar to bar.

With a wink and a request not to be identified, some Southwest business owners have toyed with the idea of becoming a private club that would allow smoking, where patrons would pay a nominal fee to join.

The strategy won't work, Reimer said: "There's no exception for private clubs. If they have a food or liquor license, that's not going to fly."

At a disadvantage?

Michael Larson, general manager of Figlio, 3001 Hennepin Ave. S. and Chino Latino, 2916 Hennepin Ave. S., said he's taking a wait-and-see approach with both restaurants, because he's not sure how the ban will cut, especially if it becomes city- or regionwide.

However, Larson said in both restaurants, about 25 percent of diners smoke -- and at least 75 percent of those who sit in the bar area. He added that management would try to devise some plan to keep their nicotine-filled customers coming back, but he isn't sure what that plan might be.

Not every bar or restaurant has found a smoking ban fatal. Tom Hanson, owner of Fuji Ya, 600 W. Lake St., banned smoking last fall on Saturday nights and some weeknights. He said Fuji Ya's business has increased.

Still, Hanson -- who said he wants a statewide ban -- said he'd consider making outdoor smoking accommodations.

Of course, sushi-eaters may be more amenable to a no-smoking environment than whiskey-swillers.

Pat Glasby, general manager at the Uptown Bar, 3018 Hennepin Ave. S., said on weeknights more than 80 percent of patrons smoke. Glasby said the numbers often climb if a band is playing.

He said he's worried after speaking with a friend in Duluth whose restaurant business has been ailing since their smoking ban took effect. Glasby said he's not sure what they'll do at the Uptown, but they have to figure out something. The only silver lining is that city's ban doesn't start for another seven-plus months. "They've given us some time to do some thinking about what we need to do," Glasby said.

He expects to lose business, but since with little he can do besides heating his patio, he'll look at the upside. "A lot of people have complained about the way it smells, so it might bring more people in," he said.