- SMOKE OUT: Eat up, at Vino's.
Nearly a year out from the July 2006 enactment of Arkansas’s Indoor Clean Air Act, the smoke has cleared to reveal a healthy restaurant scene.
At some high-profile and formerly smoke-allowing restaurants the Arkansas Times checked into, food sales profits (as reflected in tax receipts) for the first four months of 2007 were higher than those same months in 2006, and Little Rock’s total food tax receipts in 2006 were up about 2 percent over 2005.
Liquor sale profits, which aren’t public information, are said to be down by some bar owners. Manager-owner Jimmy Young of Sonny Williams’ Steak Room says his bar is down $2,500 a month in liquor sales from its smoking days. The bar, which features a piano player, used to attract business until 1 a.m.; “Now we tend to lock the door at midnight” because business is so light, Young said.
Juanita’s, which makes money off its musical entertainment as well as its food, has seen liquor and food sales slip, but not by much, a manager there said. Juanita’s wants to keep its under-21 music customers coming, and better working conditions, too, she said.
Business hasn’t been crushed out at Vieux Carre, which took over the Beechwood Grill and the adjacent Afterthought bar last year. Co-owner Linda Bennett sent out a press release to announce that “dire predictions of business failure have so far not come true.”
The Bennetts did a massive redo of the bar and restaurant in March 2006, pulling out anything that held the smell of smoke, from carpets to ceiling tiles.
“We told ourselves, ‘This is the right thing to do, this is the way the rest of the country is going,’ ” Bennett said. It didn’t hurt that she is married to a cardiologist, or that a pregnant jazz pianist said that if smoking returned, she wouldn’t.
The first six smoke-free weeks were a little scary: Sales fell 38 percent. But today, co-owner Linda Bennett said, sales are up 6.6 percent over the past year.
The previously smoky Boscos, the Oyster Bar, Sufficient Grounds and Vino’s have had higher food sales, and they credit that not to a rise in menu prices but higher traffic.
It looks like Little Rock’s bars and restaurants have kept their noses clean as well. The state Board of Health, which can fine businesses up to $1,000 for violating the act, has yet to have a violator brought before it. (A prosecutor can also file a criminal complaint; the fine is $500 tops in court.)
Violation complaints go to the state Department of Health, and there have been 584 since last July — an average of two a day statewide. But health inspectors, who are sent after the third complaint, have called on only 16 businesses.
Clubs and restaurants can allow smoking if they want to limit their clientele to 21 and above. They must post a warning to that effect outside their establishments.
And that exemption bothers Dr. Carolyn Dressler, branch chief of Tobacco Prevention and Cessation in the health department. Dressler would like to see the law made even stricter; it’s the only way to ensure that the law is protecting public health, she said.
“That some people deserve this protection and some don’t — this isn’t the best message to be sending,” Dressler said. “If we already know, from the surgeon general, that there’s no such thing as a safe level of secondhand smoke, then why are we saying that people who work in bars and restaurants aren’t as important?”
There are other exemptions to the smoking law — for private homes (unless they operate as daycares), designated hotel rooms, tobacco stores, special areas in nursing homes, designated gaming areas and outdoor jobs. All businesses seeking an exemption from the law must file for one at the state environmental health office. At least a couple of businesses have danced on the edges of the law — a video game parlor added coffee and snacks, for example, so it could call itself a restaurant. And some arguing continues over a few businesses that have declared bars within larger hotel operations to be separate enterprises and thus able to declare themselves eligible for smoking as long as no under-21s enter.
While there are thousands of businesses in Arkansas, only 353 have filed for the exemption. That doesn’t mean only 353 businesses are acting legally, but it does mean if a complaint is filed about smoking at, for example, Sticky Fingerz in the River Market, the agency has a record to know if the business is exempt or not. Sticky Fingerz is, as are popular smoke holes Flying Saucer, Midtowne Billiards, Pizza D’Action, the Sports Page and the Underground Pub, for example. Most complaints about exempted businesses are that minors are being allowed in – which triggered a visit by the inspectors to Sticky Fingerz.
Some businesses that believed they could be exempted have been disappointed to find they aren’t, and Robert Brech, an attorney for the health department, has paid personal calls on several of them to explain why. Among them: The Country Club of Little Rock, fraternal organizations and the VFW hall in Heber Springs. The country club operates a men’s grill and a restaurant, but because minors may enter the building, no smoking is allowed on the premises — otherwise, smoking areas could exist in restaurants. The VFW group, which was divided among its members over the law, would have had to turn away veterans under 21 and cease activities with other minors had they gotten an exemption.
Among the businesses on the exempted list are a few strange ones: jewelers, lawyers, and what appeared to be a doughnut shop (which has since gone out of business). Brech said a jeweler who had no more than two employees could smoke in an office, but not in a showroom.
If a business is the subject of a complaint by a non-anonymous source, the health department sends a letter and packet of informational materials to the business. A second compliant draws a second letter, which notes what the fines are. A third complaint triggers a visit by the health inspector.
Brech said that he expected that at some point a violator will come before the board.
-- By Beatrice Marovich and Leslie Newell Peacock