The smoker's retreat

As Maryland's smoking ban looms, Baltimore bar owners plan to keep patrons comfortable while they get their nicotine fix

December 19, 2007|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun reporter

While the last cigarette won't go out in a Baltimore bar for two more months, some city bar owners have been hard at work, looking for ways to follow the statewide ban without forcing smokers - some of their most loyal customers - out onto the street.

From Fells Point to Mount Vernon, club owners are investing in expensive gas heaters, installing weatherproof tents and refurbishing decks and patios for year-round use. Although others are taking a wait-and-see approach, they know it will be anything but business as usual when the ban takes effect in February.

"It ain't L.A.," said Ron Furman, owner of Max's Taphouse in Fells Point. "Baltimore is made of up neighborhood bars. And in those neighborhood bars, a lot of people smoke. It's going to be a big wake-up call ... but we'll all learn to adapt."

Some have already started. Tony and Ana Marie Cushing, owners of the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point, are renovating their back patio bar. They have obtained a liquor license for the area, poured concrete and hung lights and flags. But they're waiting for a final approval from the city before they order the high-end collapsible heated tent to cover the space.

"I saw it coming," Tony Cushing said of the ban. "I could have that tent up there in a New York second."

The statewide ban, which takes effect Feb. 1, will prohibit smoking in most public places, including bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and taxicabs. But bar owners are taking advantage of the fact that certain outdoor spaces such as decks and sidewalk patios will be exempt. The city ban that had been set for Jan. 1 has been delayed to coincide with the state ban.

Smokers such as Seth Goodman, a 31-year-old who lives in Mount Vernon, say they'd seek out a bar with an outdoor smoking area rather than stand out on the street for their nicotine fix.

"Rain, sleet or snow - I'll walk the extra mile," Goodman said. "Bar owners, pay the extra price to be smoke-friendly and I'll come."

Bar owners like Don Davis are counting on such customers. In August, the owner of Grand Central in Mount Vernon ordered a custom-made tent for the deck in back of his bar. Davis also bought a gas heater capable of keeping the deck comfortably warm in winter. As of late last month, the deck was ready to accommodate his smoking section.

All told, Davis estimates he spent $15,000 to keep his cigarette-smoking clientele from having to leave the bar for a nicotine fix. Because more than half his customers are smokers, he considers the fire-retardant tent and heater a business investment.

Baltimore bar owners hope to avoid a repeat of what happened when New York City enacted its smoking ban in April 2003: Patrons spilled onto the streets, angering neighbors with their noise and litter. Dog walkers were displeased at having to stroll through packs of smokers outside bars and clubs, and cigarette butts were commonly snuffed out on the sidewalks.

Though New York bars and restaurants feared they would lose business, many were unaffected by the ban. The number of restaurant and bar employees actually increased after the ban went into effect, according to a study by the city's Health Department.

"New York has had problems," Davis said. "Neighbors are complaining about cigarette butts and the noise and the people hanging outside the clubs. This here is keeping people from standing on the corner and keeping it clean."

Some clubs planned even farther in advance than Grand Central. Late last year, Power Plant Live's outdoor tent lounge, Mosaic, moved inside, to the space formerly occupied by BAR Baltimore. But manager LG Concannon made sure an outdoor lounge with couches, decorations and speakers was part of their million-dollar renovation of the new space.

"One of the main reasons we wanted to have an outside area was to accommodate the smoking ban," Concannon said. "We did that with the smoker in mind."

The club also added a couple of gas heaters, which will keep the outdoor lounge warm in the colder months. He had two or three from Mosaic's previous incarnation in Power Plant Live's plaza, but he doubled the number of heaters earlier this year.

The impending smoking ban has encouraged some restaurant/bars such as Max's Taphouse to apply for outdoor seating permits.

When the ban goes into effect, Max's, a cigar bar, will not be able to let patrons light up indoors. Outdoor seating would give them someplace to sit and smoke in the warmer months, Furman said. He thinks the seating may cost $6,000 to $7,000.

More than a dozen restaurants have applied for outdoor seating this year - a slight increase from last year.

"The issue of smoking is a factor, but I'm not sure it's the only factor," said David Tanner, executive director of the city's Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals.

Early last month, Steve Ledlow, Grand Central's general manager, started requiring that his staff smoke outside. A number of his servers are smokers, and he wanted to get them in the habit of taking their smoke breaks outdoors.

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