During last year’s argument over banning smoking in bars, Gary Sullivan predicted that a resulting 10 percent decline in sales would bankrupt him.
The owner of Quinn’s Restaurant & Lounge on Vista Avenue said Wednesday that he’s fared far worse than that. Sullivan said he’s lost a mind-boggling 70 percent of his business since the city’s ban went into effect in January.
“So I’m just being stupid and hard-headed for hanging on, I guess,” Sullivan said Wednesday as he surveyed a nearly empty dining area. He said he’s laid off nearly half of the Quinn’s staff over the past seven months.
As much as the loss of business hurts him, he said, the principle behind the ban irks him more. The way he sees it, the City Council claimed authority it doesn’t have.
“To me, it’s not about cigarettes,” he said. “To me, it’s about freedoms and how they’re pecking away at them.”
HEALTH VS. CHOICE
Councilwoman Elaine Clegg sees it differently. Clegg said the goal is to protect public health, an aspect of American life that has routinely warranted regulation.
“If there is a place that regulation is appropriate, I would argue that most people would agree that public health is that place,” she said.
Clegg knew the ban would affect business at bars, she said, some more than others. In the long run, she expects it won’t significantly depress sales across the city.
“I suspect that, over time, things will level out,” she said.
In the short term, however, many bar owners and their employees are blaming the City Council for a dent in their bottom lines. Across the board, they say, business fell off immediately after the ban took effect.
Since then, many agree, business has picked up somewhat. Jeff Larsen, manager of Terry’s State Street Saloon, said business is better these days, although it’s still off 10 percent to 15 percent from last year. That’s in spite of welcoming some new customers, he said.
“We have got some new people that wouldn’t come in here before because we were a pretty smoky bar,” Larsen said.
Mike Murie, a regular customer at Terry’s, said he enjoys the new smoke-free atmosphere, even though he doesn’t think the City Council had any business imposing the ban.
“I kind of like the nonsmoking, because I don’t smoke,” Murie said. “I go home and I don’t smell like tobacco.”
Most bars have designated part of their parking lots or other sections of their property as smoking areas. Some bars sport fenced-off areas where customers can drink while they smoke.
The patio at Terry’s State Street Saloon is not only fenced, but also features misters to keep customers cool in the summer and heaters to keep them warm in the winter.
But creating new areas is a cost that some bars can’t afford.
Just up the street from Terry’s, the 44 Club offers patrons an outdoor smoking area, but they can’t drink there. Bartender Patsy Miller said the inability to smoke and drink at the same time has pushed her customers away.
“They’ll have like one drink and leave, and they’ll go to a place that has a fenced patio,” Miller said.
YOUR HUDDLED MASSES YEARNING TO SMOKE
Bars in Garden City have welcomed Boise’s smokers with open arms.
“Oh, we have been, without a doubt,” Laura Kincaid, a supervisor at The Quarter Barrel on Chinden Boulevard, said when asked whether her bar has benefited from the ban.
Kincaid said the Quarter Barrel saw a jump in business about the same time some of Boise’s bars saw a decline. The difference is most pronounced in the midafternoon crowd, she said.
The Ranch Club, also on Chinden, began opening two hours earlier in the morning in response to Boise’s ban, owner Al Vogt said.
The Ranch Club has seen a noticeable increase in business, he said, but not a huge one. And a new smoking clientele is just one factor in the club’s success, he said; the club itself deserves some credit.
“We’ve been a pretty rockin’ bar for several years now, and I think the smoking thing helped us a little bit,” Vogt said. “It gave us a little boost.”
Vogt and Kincaid didn’t specify how much extra business they have seen in 2012.
SURVIVAL OF THE NICHE
In the end, the best way for bars to adapt to Boise’s smoking ban might be a bedrock rule of business: Give them something they can’t get anywhere else. After an initial slowdown in January, business has rebounded at The Pocket of Boise on Curtis Road, workers and owners said. That’s partly because The Pocket is a true pool hall, and there aren’t many pool halls around Boise.
Between old customers coming back and a new clientele that enjoys playing pool without breathing second-hand smoke, business is almost back to normal, said Erin Dunn, a waitress and bartender.
IT’S THE PRINCIPLE
Councilwoman Clegg and other supporters of the smoking rule point to a 2010 citizen survey in which nearly 70 percent of respondents supported the ban.
Since the ban went into effect, city officials said, they’ve heard from many bar employees who are grateful for a smoke-free work environment.
Pocket co-owner Jamie Blair said he’s happy that his ceilings and wall are now free of the sticky dust that came from years of smoking in the bar. Post-ban, he said, customers are more likely to stay longer and order more food and drinks.
But for many people, all the benefits don’t forgive Boise’s City Council for imposing the ban. Nearly every bar owner, employee and patron interviewed for this story agreed on one point: Government doesn’t have the authority to tell businesses how to operate.
“It’s just unconstitutional. You can’t just come in and tell us what we can and can’t do for our health,” said Bob Heinrich, a regular at the 44 Club who doesn’t smoke. “I’m not saying they’re not right, but to come in like the Gestapo?”
Sven Berg: 377-6275