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They hope profits don't go up in smoke

  • Article by: Ben Goessling
  • Star Tribune
  • October 2, 2007 - 10:34 AM

On the last weekend of legal indoor smoking in Minnesota, Rick Casper planned to make sure the lighters went out in style.

His two Cherokee Sirloin Room locations, in Eagan and West St. Paul, were to offer free cigarettes all weekend. It was a play on words -- instead of the smoke-free environment that hit bars and restaurants statewide Monday, Casper was letting customers smoke for free.

And last Sunday night, Casper said, "we [were] giving away the ashtrays."

It's not that the longtime restaurateur is sad to see smoking go. He's a non-smoker and is hopeful the statewide smoking ban will mean better conditions for his employees.

But his fear is, with smoking go his best customers -- and possibly the gains he's made the past two years.

A statewide ban is being met with some uncertainty from south-metro bars and restaurants. Some had seen advantages to being just across the river from smoke-free Hennepin County, and particularly Bloomington, which has had one of the state's strictest laws since March 31, 2005.

Others are hopeful a loss in revenue from smokers will be offset by more families willing to go out. For now, most businesses are being cautious.

"Statewide, they'll still want to go out," said Casper. "But maybe they'll have one less drink. I am a bit nervous about that."

The ban prohibits smoking in virtually all indoor places. Indian casinos, hotel rooms, tobacco shops and locked psychiatric facilities are allowed to have indoor smoking. Bars and restaurants may have outdoor smoking areas, though cities may have tighter laws.

The overall picture of smoking bans' effects on business is somewhat unclear. A 2006 study of Bloomington's smoking ban showed liquor sales slipped, as they had been doing for four years, while hotel revenue increased. Minneapolis's 2006 study showed liquor and food sales had gone up at the one-year mark of its ban.

But Casper said his business was up 20 percent in August and 10 percent last month, and he attributes the uptick partially to north-of-the-river customers coming south to smoke.

He admits he's had an unfair advantage the past two years, but now that south-metro establishments are in the no-smoking club there are plenty of other issues. The biggest might be accommodations for smokers.

In the short-term, Casper plans to put heaters on the Cherokee Sirloin Room's patio to keep smokers warm in the winter. But he's looked at a $20,000 plan to renovate his smoking area.

"That's a game everybody's going to be playing. How do you keep it hot?" he said. "I'll wait and see what my competition does. If everybody spends a lot of money, I guess I'll have to, too."

Wanda Oland is creating an atrium outside her restaurant, Rascals in Apple Valley, and adding a bar entrance -- which comes after three other remodel efforts to placate non-smokers.

Burnsville Bowl owner Bob Hatten also said he'd look at adding an outdoor patio to the bowling alley, but he said he has received no guidance from Burnsville on whether the city will add further restrictions to the state law.

"You don't want to put down a bunch of pavers and find out they're 10 feet off base," Hatten said."

Oland is trying to stay optimistic about the ban, noting she's had numerous customers tell her they'll visit Rascals more now that it's smoke-free.

With the right accommodation, she thinks she'll keep the smokers, too.

"If you make a nice area where they're comfortable, they'll come. They can't smoke anywhere else," she said. "It could affect my business, but I hope not. God bless me, I hope not."

Ben Goessling • 612-673-7252

Ben Goessling • bgoessling@startribune.com

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