Bar owners fear losing lucrative regulars

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

Bartender Sandy Krook opens downtown Juneau's Triangle Club at 9 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays. Her regulars are never far behind.

The "coffee crew," as she calls it, comes in between 9 and 11 a.m. to smoke, drink coffee and socialize. Depending on the morning, there are 10 to 12 of them at the bar. Some are bachelors, some are business people, some are retired. Many of them have been coming to the Triangle since before Krook started working there five years ago.

Krook had a similar group of regulars when she worked at the Channel Bowl's bar for 14 years. All across Juneau, bartenders and owners fear they could lose regulars - the heart of their business - to a smoking ban.

"This is their place. This is their comfort zone," Krook said. "We've taken so many of their places away from them. Bars are the last socializing place where they can have their cigarettes or even cigars. These people are my friends. There are some that I cook for, and there are some that I take care of. It's not fair to make them feel uncomfortable."

Last December, Krook collected signatures from more than 200 full-time bar and restaurant employees opposed to a comprehensive smoking ban in Juneau bars and restaurants.

"I've talked to bartenders, cocktail waitresses, cooks and waiters, and nobody knows who the Juneau Clean Air Coalition is," Krook said. "They couldn't tell you who (coalition chair) Joan Cahill is if they wanted to.

"And it really bothers me that someone is claiming to protect me without asking my permission. It's just not right to speak for a whole group when you haven't talked to the whole group."

The big question for bar owners is how a smoking ban would affect their business. The Internet is filled with studies and Web sites that support both sides of that argument with examples all over the world. But owners say there's no conclusive evidence that predicts what will happen in Juneau's economy. And they don't want to be forced into taking the risk of finding out.

"The Clean Air Coalition says that the amount of people that we'd lose because of the smoking ban would be replaced by people who would appreciate the clean air," said Rob Daniels, owner of the Imperial for the last six years. "We think that's not true. But it's all speculation.

"A majority of my staff smoke, a majority of my customers smoke, and there's really no evidence either way that can predict what will happen in the Juneau business economy," Marlintini's owner Ethan Billings said. "Why should a small part of the community that doesn't own a bar and that doesn't have a financial interest in any of the bars care what private businesses are doing legally?"

Billings is a nonsmoker. In fact, his new restaurant/bar, Docwater's, will be smoke-free when it opens in a few weeks at the site of the old Fisherman's Wharf in the Hangar building. But he makes money off smokers at Marlintini's. And with rising costs from insurance, tobacco taxes, minimum wage and supplies, he isn't eager to gamble on whether his smoking clientele will still show up.

"This (ban) is coming from people who aren't doing business in the industry," Billings said. "The bar owners know their business better than someone in a nonsmoking location."

"The Juneau Clean Air Coalition is saying that the workers of the bars deserve to work in a smoke-free environment, but they never asked the workers what they thought," he said. "The workers don't mind it, because they make more tips.

Squire's Rest owner Troy Cunningham began attending Assembly meetings on the smoking issue in 2002, when the city passed the ordinance prohibiting smoking in restaurants and restaurant bars. Smoking is still allowed in stand-alone bars such as Squire's.

"I went to show my concern of the government getting in the way of private businesses," Cunningham said. "So it's gone on for awhile, and now they're trying to go for the kill."

At G.W. Teals, co-owner Neil Atkinson believes many of his smokers would not come in if the ban were passed.

"A lot of them have said that," Atkinson said. "When we sit here we see people that are smokers that come into our business three, four, five times a week, that will not come back into our business because they can't smoke."

At the Triangle, owner Leeann Thomas is concerned that her regulars - the majority of whom are smokers - would be driven away.

"The people that truly support my business - more of them are smokers than non-smokers," said Triangle owner Leaann Thomas.

Todd Brown, a bartender at Squire's and a smoker, said he isn't bothered by smoke.

"I don't get many complaints at all about the smokiness of this establishment," he said.

He thinks smokers still would show up if there were a ban, but it would be difficult to monitor them if they were congregating outside to smoke.

"It takes the party outside the bar, where anything can happen," Billings said.

Downtown, on the Front Street/Franklin Street corridor, that problem could be magnified.

"It's going to appear like people are loitering," Daniels said.

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