Bar owners improvise to prepare for smoking ban

Sarah Antonacci

Ed Skube has come up with perhaps the most ingenious way to deal with the smoking ban that goes into effect throughout Illinois at midnight Tuesday.

He opened a tobacco shop next door to his bar, Ed Skube’s Pitstop, 2248 North Grand Ave. E. in Grandview, and put a connecting door between the two businesses.

“I have a smoking lounge there. People can go from the bar to there without having to go outside,” Skube said.

Because of its location in the Springfield suburb of Grandview, Skube's bar hasn't been affected by the smoking bans that have been in place for more than a year in Springfield and in unincorporated areas of Sangamon County. But that exemption will end Tuesday, when a new state law will ban smoking in nearly all public buildings in Illinois. Tobacco stores are one of the few exceptions.

Patrons won’t be able to bring their drinks into Skube's tobacco shop from the bar, so he thinks the arrangment passes legal muster. But, Skube previously managed Spillway Lanes at MacArthur Boulevard and Outer Park Drive and he believes Springfield’s smoking ban killed the old bowling alley. So he remains a little leery about his newest venture.

“I have a feeling they’re going to find a way to put the screws to me,” he said. 

Since the local bans went into effect in Springfield and Sangamon County, some bars and restaurants in towns elsewhere in the county have seen business boom. But that “golden age” will end when statewide ban levels the playing field for everybody.

For some taverns, it’s ended already anyway.

“Initially, it was a boon for us,” Ami Merchant, owner of The Curve Inn, 3219 S. Sixth St. in Southern View, said of the city and county bans. “It increased business immediately.

“But overall, it’s definitely leveled off, and people have adapted and adjusted.”

She said people who usually go to downtown Springfield bars flooded into her business shortly after the local bans took effect. But most got used to the idea that they’d have to smoke outside and eventually returned downtown.

What’s more, she lost some regular customers in the meantime.

“We’re a neighborhood bar with an after-work crowd, dart leagues and a 3 a.m. liquor license,” she said. “I lost a lot of my regulars because of the smoking ban, because it was too busy and too smoky.

“I have non-smoking customers, too. I am hoping to get them back, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

But some new smoking customers became regulars too, she said, and “we enjoy them.”

Merchant hopes the $35,000 she spent to build a large beer garden with a roof will keep both old and new customers walking in the door.

“It’s just to survive, and we’re not even close to being done,” Merchant said. “We’re at a standstill.”

She said she’s reluctant to spend any more money until the state hammers out all the details of the new law. Although the law takes effect Tuesday, state regulators won’t have all the final rules in place until at least Jan. 9.

“It’s frustrating, because the bar owners are trying to do something and they can’t even tell us what to do,” she said.

Another establishment often cited as having made a killing off the Springfield smoking ban is The Barrel Head, owned by Kevin Davlin, the brother of Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin.

Coincidentally, the bar and restaurant at 1577 W. Wabash Ave. in Jerome had been destroyed by the two tornadoes that hit Springfield in March 2006.

So, when Kevin Davlin rebuilt The Barrel Head, he took into consideration the idea that smoking bans were probably on the horizon.

“First of all, we had a brilliant architect. And second, we got lucky,” he said. “God takes care of fools and Democrats, and I happen to be one of each.”

As a result, the front of the new Barrel Head has a semi-enclosed area that seats 60 people. The smoking area is 15 feet away from the interior door of the building, which conforms to the minimum distance in the new state law. And it has windows that open and a built-in heating system.

Davlin said he’s thought a lot about the smoking ban and examined what has happened in other countries that have gone smoke-free. But he still doesn’t have a prediction about what might happen when the statewide ban goes into effect.

“What we can tell happened in Ireland is that alcohol sales decreased and food sales increased. The net effect is that you break even, with a four or five percent increase in profit,” Davlin said.

At least, he says, all businesses will now be at the “same disadvantage of not allowing business owners to declare whether their business will be smoke-free.”

Davlin also owns Chantilly Lace, 2660 S. Fifth St., which is inside Springfield city limits. Business is off there by almost 60 percent, he says, because so many customers have gone down the street to The Curve Inn, where they can – until Tuesday -- smoke freely.

“Do I hope and pray customers who went to the Curve Inn will come back to Chantilly Lace?” he asked. “A level playing field between the two would be fantastic. It’s a two-edged sword.”

Sarah Antonacci can be reached at (217) 788-1529 or