Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Bar owners prepare for smoking ban

Health officer says alternative for restaurants can be a challenge

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Tom Fedor⁄The Gazette
Jason Safley of Eldersburg sits with a friend at the bar at Serra Brothers in Sykesville, smoking as they socialize Saturday. A statewide ban on smoking in public eateries and other establishments takes effect Friday.
Grant Gurksy did not wait for the statewide smoking ban in restaurants to start Friday.

Gursky, co-owner of Meiklejohn’s Restaurant and Pub in Eldersburg, decided with his brother Josh Gurksy to go smoke-free on Nov. 27.

‘‘For us, it was just a strategic business decision,” he said.

Meiklejohn’s fills up in December with private family parties, and the only space left for parties was the smoke-filled rear bar area, Gursky said. Families would be more likely to reserve that area if it was smoke-free, he said.

The statewide smoking ban applies to most public places and nonprofit private clubs, such as American Legion halls. Outdoor areas of bars and restaurants and tobacco shops will not be affected.

Some restaurant owners are finding ways to adjust to the ban and accommodate smokers.

‘‘My partner and I said, ‘Hey, if we go and become a smoke-free restaurant, we’re looking at another $10,000 to $15,000 in revenue,” he said.

The restaurant did see a spike in revenue for December, he said. January is down, but the month is traditionally a slow month, he added.

But Gursky did not welcome the smoking ban with open arms. ‘‘I was on both sides of the fence,” he said.

In one regard, Gursky said he felt it was a political issue because he pays taxes and owns a business. However, he also considered how much demand there was from customers who commented that they would come in more when the restaurant goes smoke-free.

Seeing that no similar bar in Eldersburg was smoke-free, Gursky capitalized on the chance. ‘‘Where else are they going to go in Eldersburg for the moment to get that atmosphere that we provide on a weekend basis?” he said.

In fairness to the smokers, they have shown up, Gursky said, while non-smokers have not shown up more. ‘‘The smokers have always supported us,” he said.

He also has seen that the 20-something crowd has shown up more while the older crowd during happy hour curtailed.

Gursky also provided a place outside the restaurant with heaters for smokers to take a puff. ‘‘I’m hoping that once everyone knows everywhere is smoke-free, that it will be a boon to us,” he said.

James Serra hopes for the same result.

Serra, co-owner of Serra Brothers Italian Deli and Sports Bar in Eldersburg, hopes for people to come out once the ban begins.

‘‘We feel that you’re going to get the nonsmoker that never came to the bar because of the smoke,” he said, welcoming the ban.

Serra Brothers has a wall and separate entrance for its bar while its dining room was smoke-free before the ban, he said.

At the same time, he does not want to drive away his smokers. ‘‘I’m going to make it a little more convenient to smoke outside,” he said.

Serra plans to provide an area outside the front entrance for people to smoke.

With the ban starting on a weekend, and Super Bowl Sunday in the midst of it, Serra did not anticipate issues with people trying to light up.

‘‘In Eldersburg, the Super Bowl is not a big bar crowd unless the Ravens are playing,” he said.

Gursky said in the three months since his restaurant went smoke-free, his staff walked three customers out who refused to stop smoking.

Gursky said he trained his staff to handle sensitive situations if a customer would smoke.

Restaurant owners who feel that no smoking hurts their business can file a waiver to allow smoking, said Larry Leitch, Carroll County’s health officer.

However, owners must prove the restaurant has at least a 15 percent reduction in gross sales over a two-month span compared to the previous two years, he said.

That means owners would have to wait until April 1 to file for a waiver.

Owners can also apply for a waiver ‘‘for undue financial hardship” if they do no recover from spending money on construction and equipment to become smoke-free, Leitch said.

A third way is if something other than financial hardship makes compliance unreasonable, he said, adding the state document does not provide examples of what that would be.

Getting the waiver approved appears to be difficult, Leitch said.

‘‘The waiver form itself is a very formidable form,” he said. ‘‘It’s about 18 pages, and a lot of material has to be submitted.”

‘‘I doubt that the average restaurant or tavern owner would be able to do it themselves,” Leitch said. ‘‘They might have to have an accountant or CPA.”

The form also requires owners to explain how they would work to become smoke-free by Feb. 1, 2011, the date on which every business must be smoke-free.

Leitch said he expects few waivers to be filed.