Some Bars Cross the Smoking Line
A few local proprietors have publicly broken rank and thrown their support in favor of the proposed full smoking ban
As the May 7 city election approaches, more of Austin's bar and restaurant owners are entering the dialogue surrounding whether to enact a citywide smoking ban. Although Keep Austin Free, the group of business owners and citizens against the ban, has been steadily adding supporters to their roll call, a few local proprietors and even a barkeep have publicly broken ranks and thrown their support in favor of the ban. Their opinions, in some ways, clash with several of the most repeated anti-ban arguments especially the ones surrounding economic uncertainties.
Reed Clemmons, owner of the Bitter End Brewery & Bistro, the B-Side bar, Mezzaluna, and Reed's Jazz & Supper Club, has for months been vocally in favor of the smoking ban for the very same reason many of his Keep Austin Free counterparts oppose it: economic impact. Only one of Clemmons' businesses is eligible for a smoking permit under the current smoking ordinance, which states that businesses generating more than 70% of their overall revenue from food must be designated nonsmoking, unless they install an elaborate and costly ventilation and partition system. Many full-ban opponents argue that the city hasn't given the 2003 ordinance ample time to do its job. But Clemmons says he's had enough of the current ordinance, claiming its an unfair financial strain on his businesses. "The big push in the media has been in favor of keeping the current smoking ordinance, the majority [of reporting] coming from live music venues. But no one has brought up certain restaurants at a disadvantage because of the current ordinance," Clemmons says.
"I'm a businessman. If it were up to me, bars and restaurants would make their own decisions whether to allow smoking and let the market dictate, but with the knowledge that [smoking] ordinances are only going to get tougher, I want to make sure I'm on a level playing field with neighboring bars, especially those with food service." In the Warehouse District alone, Clemmons said, there are five bars with smoking permits serving food. "Since the 2003 ordinance, my happy hours at the Bitter End and Mezzaluna are down 30 to 40 percent." Ironically, he said he lost his best customer a prominent businessman known to spend $100 per day on wine alone after the '03 ordinance took effect to 219 West, which has a smoking permit and is the nearby restaurant of Keep Austin Free spokesman Paul Silver.
Around the corner from Bitter End and 219 West sits Tambaleo, another popular Warehouse District destination. Owner T.C. Leshikar isn't worried about economic turmoil, nor is he worried about the musicians who frequent his stage. Leshikar already has a smoking permit, but has come out publicly in favor of the ban, reassuring fellow owners that a citywide ban in Austin won't create the kind of devastation that's frequently predicted. "Bar owners are not really seeing the big picture or the actual facts; they are succumbing to what they're being told," he said. "I'm definitely for the ban and by no means will it hurt business."
Leshikar bases his conclusions on research he's done in New York City and other full-ban towns. "There will be an initial drop-off, but no one's going to stop going out," he said. After talking to his patrons, he said many guests told him they were social smokers anyway, and not only would a smoking ban not be a nightlife deal breaker, it may even help them kick the habit. "A lot of people said, 'If I couldn't smoke when I drink, I'd probably quit smoking.'" Leshikar said he's amazed that a city as health conscious as Austin is having such a problem with a smoking ban, especially after New York and L.A. did it.
Thomas Villarreal, who tends bar at Paradise on Sixth Street, welcomes the idea of a smoke-free workplace, noting that few people in his business have a smoke/smoke-free option. Bartending jobs are scarce, he says: "It's tough to break into the industry down there unless you know somebody. The money is really good working in bars downtown, and once you're there, it's hard to leave it behind." A UT sophomore, Villarreal, like many college students, works his way through school as a bartender because the hours coincide with his class schedule. But he says he dislikes working around smoke and the way it permeates everything from the shirt on his back to all the clothes in his closet. Paradise co-owner Frank Salinas says he wouldn't mind going smoke-free, either, as long as the other bars were doing it. "If everybody else is nonsmoking, it'll be all right. It's a strange bird, but that's the only way I'll stay in business."
Other business owners don't buy the level playing field argument, however. "If bans really didn't hurt businesses and there are these throngs of nonsmokers that Onward Austin says will come out, then Reed Clemmons' places should be doing great business," said John Wickham, owner of the Elysium and a member of Keep Austin Free. The level playing field rationale is nothing more than a crutch Onward Austin uses to counter the argument that situations like the ones at the Bitter End and Mezzaluna are the hurtful product of the current smoking ordinance, Wickham said. And so goes the reasoning, "Reed has been victimized. So to be fair, we want to victimize everyone."
If banning smoking does indeed end up hurting some Austin businesses, there's always old San Antone. Wickham said he and a few other club owners have received letters from San Antonio property owners and developers offering incentives to transplant their businesses.