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Cutting through the smoke - one club's experience banning smoking

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 31, 2010 -On the last Friday of February, Dave Stone was leading a quartet througha lively, rollicking set of jazz on the tiny stage of Mangia Italiano, the players alternately grabbing leads or hanging back, waiting for a nod from Stone.

Heading up one of the longest-running weekly gigs in town, Stone's played literally hundreds of weekend nights at the South Grand venue, and that particular show was no different than many: Around the stage, acluster of fans was actually dialed into the music, and through the rest of the packed-to-capacity bar, people were talking, drinking and, definitely, smoking.

A week later, though, the popular South City restaurant and nightclub had curbed smoking. And early returns on business show the difficulties that any venue faces when voluntarily giving up the habit of relying on smokers for business. There's been an early hit on late-night business, in particular, while the venue attempts to reach out to the non-smoking majority of St. Louis to make up the balance.

David Burmeister, Mangia's managing partner and a veteran of the service industry says, "The decisions on the business mostly belong to the patrons, less to the guy that holds the liquor license. They were asked, and they made the call."

Burmeister's referring to an online questionnaire sent out through the venue's social networking channels, which then began to be spread virally. Within a week-plus period, 500 completed surveys had come in, with 90 percent of respondents saying that they were ambivalent to a smoking policy change or in favor of it.

"I was remiss, in that I should've had a paper version available for the non-computer literate customers," Burmeister says, with a wink.

But there's certainly been feedback after the fact -- all of that delivered in person.

"I've had both extremes," he says. "I've been told by some regular customers that they hate me and they take it as a personal affront while other patrons are thankful. Some others might not hate me, but they're disgruntled and are on hiatus.

"A large part of this was not to force non-smoking clientele to sit in a smoky 'smoke-free' room or to go elsewhere. A much larger percentage of patrons don't smoke. I want to avail myself to a broader scope of people. And I'd like to do that while facilitating the faithful clientele of the last 20 years. I miffed some of them, which I expected."

Therein lies part of the trick for a venue undergoing the change. With winter ending on a crisp note, Mangia was unable to convert a closed down alley into a new, smoke-friendly patio. The new alley access, once built out as a permanent spill space, should go a long way toward handling the Mangia smokers, who now huddle in a pair of doorwells outside the business.

"We'll have that patio done as soon as possible," Burmeister says, noting other practical, physical changes that need to occur, like moving dumpsters and building a wall to block smokers from the public.

Those types of secondary concerns are the ones that can cause a business to question the worth (and initial financial cost) of a change.

Stacy Reliford, a steering committee member of the non-smoking advocacy group Smoke-Free St. Louis City, says, "The best thing a business can do, if going through the change voluntarily, rather than being forced by ordinance, is to get people ready for the change. Talk to the regulars.Have an area for smokers outside. (Businesses) that have a patio, or other place out front, find it easier. In the case of Mangia, or the TapRoom, which also went non-smoking, they did a great job of talking to people, their regulars and the media. They did a good job that way and people were ready."

That said, not all were happy and supportive. At Mangia, the most vocal opposition came from tip-making staff members, who sensed a hit to income with the shift. It's a somewhat ironic reaction, in that bar and restaurant staffers are often cited as a main reason for smoking bans, due to their constant work around second-hand smoke.

Reliford says. "There's an anecdotal fear at first. With the bar and restaurant industry, it's so volatile already. Any shift in the format can send a panic through it. But the data support that what's happening is that there's usually a small change downward, at the beginning, but then it equalizes. And in some cases, the business improves."

She says that businesses will sometimes check in for moral support or to tap the 6,000 fans of Smoke-Free on Facebook, where the group promotes businesses making the change.

"They want the resources that we're able to offer to them," she jokes, "but they don't typically ask us for help in running their businesses.

Burmeister, nervous but content to ride out the short-term hit to his bar business, is hopeful that the poll respondents who wanted smoking to go away are now going to come around. And he's even able to joke that afew other businesses are especially happy with the move. Before 1:30 a.m., nearby CBGB has absorbed some of Mangia's customer base, while the Upstairs and Sandrina's have clearly benefited during the 1:30-3:00 a.m. crush.

Cracks the amiable Burmeister, "I know Guy (Bour of CBGB) loves me right now."

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer in St. Louis.