Bars hope smoking ban brings back customers

Posted on 09 Apr 2009 at 6:57pm
By John Wright News Editor

New Dallas ordinance set to take effect Friday


David McGee, office manager at the Roundup Saloon, models one of the T-shirts employees will be wearing on Friday night to mark the effective date of Dallas’ new ban on smoking in bars. JOHN WRIGHT/DallasVoice

Nicky Brown says he went to gay bars in Dallas a lot more often before he moved to Los Angeles for three years and became spoiled by California’s smoke-free establishments. 

Since returning to Dallas in 2005, Brown said he’s gone out only about once every three months, primarily because he can’t stand the secondhand haze.

"It gives me a smoke hangover," said Brown, 35. "I was actually burned on the arm once — little things like that. It’s just easier not to be bothered with it. There are other places I can go to do the same thing, to socialize, where I don’t have to be bothered by that."

Brown said he was looking forward to Friday, April 10, when Dallas’ expanded smoking ordinance was set to take effect. The ordinance will prohibit smoking in most indoor workplaces, including bars, clubs and billiard halls. Smoking will still be allowed on patios.

"I’m in a relationship, so we do more of the home-type of things, but I still enjoy seeing friends. I feel like I’ve kind of put that on the back burner for a while,"

Brown said. "I really attribute that to getting used to the nonsmoking environment in L.A. when I was there. It was sort of a rude awakening when I came back, so I think if that’s lifted, it could open up a lot more opportunities for me to go out."
Representatives from gay and lesbian bars in Dallas say they’re hoping for a boost in business from others like Brown in the wake of the smoking ban.

"I think we’re going to create a whole new clientele of people who haven’t been out to the bars for a long time," said Michael Doughman, executive director of the Dallas Tavern Guild, an association of about 20 gay and lesbian bars citywide.

"I certainly hope that that’s true," said Rick Espaillat, a spokesman for Caven Enterprises, which operates four gay and lesbian clubs along the Cedar Springs strip.

"I think it’s a good thing for our guests and for our staff," Espaillat said this week of the expanded ordinance. "I know in the last week I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve said they’re going to be coming out more often, and a lot of people who aren’t coming out who’ve said they’re going to be coming out again."

Dallas bars and clubs may need an influx of new customers to offset an inevitable slight decline in business from hard-core smokers — like 55-year-old Randy Walker. 

Walker, a smoker of 44 years, said he spends $20 five times a week during happy hour at Crews Inn, a gay bar on Fitzhugh Avenue. But Walker said with the smoking ban, he’ll go out only once or twice a week.

"I don’t smoke in my house and I don’t smoke in my car, but when I come out and drink, a bar is a bar," Walker said from his perch at Crews Inn this week. "I can stay home and have my cocktail."

But even Walker acknowledged that people like him will eventually grow accustomed to the smoking ban. Doughman said the immediate decline experienced by businesses in other locales with smoking bans has been "very short-lived." 

"The average length of that issue is less than a month," Doughman said. "It dies down and people adjust. We don’t really see it as a big loss."

Smoker Jeff Howard, 47, said he’s been going to Zippers, another gay bar on Fitzhugh Avenue, twice a week for the last 25 years. Howard said he thinks the impending ban "really sucks" and amounts to a loss of civil liberties.
But it won’t stop him from coming out. He said he’ll just go back and forth to the patio. 

"It’ll make it a lot less comfortable," Howard said. "I can see them doing that for restaurants, but bars are a different deal."

Although customers like Walker and Howard may disagree with it, the smoking ban has long been viewed as inevitable by most bar owners. Doughman said given that the ban was widely expected to pass, the Tavern Guild and its members worked hard to ensure that an exception was carved out for patios.

Alan Pierce, treasurer of the Tavern Guild and co-owner of the Round-up Saloon, a gay bar on Cedar Springs, said some cities across the country have banned smoking on patios, too. "Patio smoking is a good compromise," Pierce said. "By having it on the patio, they don’t have to set their drink down and go outside."

The Roundup is among the bars that are taking advantage of the opportunity to make patio improvements. Pierce said the Roundup plans to add a second level to its patio in the back, which will offer a view of the downtown Dallas skyline.
"That’s going to be a very nice place to be," Pierce said. "I’ll probably spend a lot of time out there. It’s a good excuse to freshen up our patio."

Doughman said other Tavern Guild members, including Pekers on Oak Lawn Avenue and Woody’s on Cedar Springs, also are eyeing patio improvements.
"Since more people are going to be forced outside, I think they’re trying to create — where they can — a nice atmosphere," Doughman said.

The only Tavern Guild member that doesn’t currently have a patio is Illusions, a five-year-old bar on Maple Avenue.  Illusions owner Eddie Bonner previously predicted the smoking ban would put him out of business. But Bonner said this week he’s now hoping to install a small patio between the front of Illusions and the sidewalk on Maple Avenue. Illusions is also among the bars that have started selling electronic cigarettes, battery-powered devices that provide inhaled doses of nicotine without burning or putting off smoke. Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, reportedly will be allowed under the ordinance.

Still, Bonner said he expects the ban to hurt business, and he remains somewhat defiant, saying he doesn’t really plan to enforce it. Violations of the ordinance are punishable by a fine of $200, and city officials say enforcement will be driven by complaints.

Bonner said if somebody lights up in Illusions, he’ll tell them they’re not supposed to smoke. But if they refuse to put out their cigarette, "I’m not going to kick them out of the bar," he said.

"If I get fined for somebody doing that, I’m going to pay the fine," Bonner said. "I don’t think it’s my place to police other people."

E-mail wright@dallasvoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 10, 2009.

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