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DIVIDED: After six months, bar owners and employees are still divided on smoking ban
Lyndsey Luxford
Antelope Staff
Photo from Internet
Six months after a state-wide smoking ban, restaurant owners and bars like Fanatics and Lumberg's in Kearney are mixed on the feelings that it creates for their operation.


Thunderhead, check. Copperfields, check. Fanatics, check. Playpen, check.  Cunningham’s, check. Lumberg’s, check.  

All of these bars stretch across The Bricks in downtown Kearney.  As of six months ago, they all have become non-smoking. No matter what their opinion is on the statewide smoking ban, all of the owners agree that people should have the right to decide what to do with their privately owned businesses.

Thunderhead    

Trevor Schaben kicked the cigarette butts out of the doorway at the local brewery he started 10 years ago.  “I find it ironic that I am kicking cigarettes out of my entrance,” Schaben said with a slight chuckle.  Schaben walked up the brewery’s staircase and stopped on the first landing. He resumed cutting wires in order to replace a painting with a new backdrop displaying Thunderhead's brews on the crimson wall.

Restaurant and bar owners were literally told they had to nip smoking in the butt as of the first of June when a smoking ban took effect across the whole state of Nebraska.  The effects that this ban has put on places that mainly sell alcohol have both upsides and downsides.

“For us it’s a little bit different because we were non-smoking before all of this happened— which was the thing that made us unique.  Now that we aren’t unique, it has been a bit of a negative effect. However, at the same time, I can’t say it has been all negative because people who wouldn’t come here before because we were non-smoking, come here now because they don’t have options to go other places,” Schaben said.

It is obvious that people who smoke are against this ban, and people who do not smoke are for this ban. Local bar owners definitely have their own point of view on the situation.

Schaben stopped clipping wire for the first time and said, “I am actually against the ban because these are privately owned businesses. We should be able to make the decision on our own. I think people 'voting with their feet and with their dollars' works the best. There can be a place for everyone. That way if you absolutely have to have a cigarette with your beer there would be a place for you to go.”  

Schaben’s voice stopped as he clipped another piece of wire. “So as a business owner, we could decide what we wanted to do— for us we decided to go non-smoking, just because we wanted to be different.”

Bryan Todd works at Thunderhead.  His two-month employment anniversary is coming up soon, and the ban hasn’t really changed anything for him. “I would not have wanted to work at a bar that allowed smoking because I am allergic to the smoke.” Since Thunderhead was non-smoking prior to the ban, he would have applied there rather than anywhere else.  
Playpen

Down the road, a quiet bar shows telltales signs that patrons of the Playpen aren’t too impressed with the ban either. The lighting is dark at two in the afternoon.  The color of the walls reveals that smoking was a popular pastime in this establishment for years.  Three regulars and the bar owner, Jeanne Jorgensen, sat at the bar ironically talking about what had been published in that morning’s Kearney Hub.  The headline read, “Smoking ban good, bad for business.”  

In a raspy voice Jorgensen spoke about the ban, “Our business is significantly down.  I would say before the ban we had about 60 to 75 percent smokers.  It is hard to say because at the time that the ban took effect, the weather had not been the greatest. We have a lot of construction workers and golfers, but it didn’t get so hot that they couldn’t stay outside. So it is hard to say what is more to blame: the weather or the economy.  I believe smoking was a significant part of it.”

Jorgensen’s thoughts are similar to those of Trevor Schaben's. Jorgensen and her husband John believe that it should be the bar owner’s decision.  

“Well I am against it, but we are learning to live with it. I guess my biggest problem is that my husband and I own this building, so we feel that we should be able to do what we want. I don’t see, for any reason why we couldn’t put a six-foot sign up in front that reads, ‘We are smoking in here.  (If you don’t like it) Don’t bring me beer, don’t clean my carpets and don’t apply for a job. That is what we are doing in here.’ I don’t see why it couldn’t be as simple as that, to let us make our own decisions.”  Jorgensen also said that she hasn’t seen the hordes of non-smokers that were supposed to show up after the ban. She has not seen anyone come in here specifically because the bar is non-smoking.  It is mostly their same regulars, however now, she says “they don’t stay as long.”

Fanatics

One popular sports bar, Fanatics,  sits right on Central Avenue, a prime location.  Bar owner, Todd Schirmer has the impression that his bar has not been drastically affected by this change.  Schirmer decided he wanted a smoke free bar from the get-go.  He hoped that this would give him a niche and that he would develop customers based on the smoke free atmosphere.  

“We knew it was coming eventually, so we wanted to be ahead of the game and offer a place with no smoking, just to see if we could develop a crowd based on no smoking.  We also didn’t want to go through the whole process of cleaning the smell of smoke out of the bar.  I am not a smoker, and as much as I am at the bar, I didn’t want to work in a place that constantly smelled like smoke,” Schirmer said.

So far Schirmer said that the ban has been, for the most part, a positive.  He said that people who smoke feel like they are on a level playing ground, so they come to Fanatics now that they do not have the need to go elsewhere for smoking.

However, Schirmer firmly believes that this should not be legislated.  “I think it should be each individual owner’s choice. People have the right to choose to come or not to come, based on what the bar has to offer. I think that we make that choice every day; whether it is smoking, the type of food offered, the atmosphere or the location.  I just am not a believer in legislating things like that.”

Lumberg's

Jody Spilde, the bar owner of Lumberg’s reflects that drinking and smoking often go hand in hand. “When customers go outside to smoke, then they are not drinking their beer, which has been a bit of an effect on our business,” Spilde said.  Spilde, originally from Sioux City, Iowa, said that his business has not been as affected, but he faces problematic legal issues the ban causes.

“When people go outside to smoke, they tend to take their drinks with them (which is illegal).  Now my costs have gone up to have an extra person on staff just to watch our doors.”
Copperfields

Just across the brick road from both Thunderhead and Lumberg’s is another locally owned bar, Copperfields.  Once Mike Kelliher, the bar owner, heard “smoking ban” his demeanor went from laughing to serious.  He said his business has gone down drastically, over 50 percent.  He is not sure how much of the drop is due to the ban and not the economy, but he feels that the smoking ban has made a negative impact on his bar.

Kelliher said that if not smoking in the bars was so important, then the bars that were non-smoking prior to the ban would have been the busiest bars in Kearney.  Those bars were not the only ones making business. He feels now they actually have lost their niche as a non-smoking establishment.  

“It has absolutely hurt everybody.  Now we have cigarette butts all over the streets. The liquor stores are up about 55 percent, and the bars are down about 50 percent. The wait staff and workers who work here do not make nearly as much tips as they used to,” Kelliher said.

Before Kelliher stepped outside in the November weather to smoke his cigarette he said, “If they had allowed the people who attend the bars at least once a month, to be the only ones who vote, then they would have had a drastic change in the outcome.  The majority of people who voted are not the type of people who go to the bars.”

When Kelliher rushed outside for his smoke break, Emily Robbins and Amaya Blasi, both bartenders at Copperfields, agreed that they would not have applied at Copperfields if the smoking ban had not taken place.

“I think the ban is obviously bad for bar business, but I do not like going home having to smell like smoke, so I like it,” Robbins said.
Cunningham's

All of these five business owners are landlocked.  Therefore, they do not have beer gardens that their customers can comfortably smoke in. The only designated smoking area is the hard, cold concrete out front.   

However, there are a few bars who don’t feel as affected by the ban, particularly because their customers have the option to smoke in their beer garden.  One bar in particular is Cunningham’s.  They have the option for smokers to smoke on their premises while still drinking outside in the beer garden. However the true test will be coming shortly: the dead of winter.  

“I don’t think it has been affected for the good or bad. I know that there are smokers out there, but I think that they are getting used to it.  It has been a positive for people who do not smoke because it brings them in to our place, and they enjoy being here and not going home smelling like smoke,” Mike Anderson, owner of Cunningham’s said.   

“As a non-smoker I am okay with it,” Anderson said, “but as a business owner I feel that some things should be left up to the business and let them decide for themselves. As a business owner I think there is a fine line.”

One thing is for sure, some employees actually feel healthier. Cunningham’s employee, Jessica Cramer, feels that all of the regulars come to Cunningham’s just as often, but they smoke less.  “It is healthier for everyone.  A couple of other employees have asthma, but with no smoke in the bar, it has helped them feel healthier.”

The overall effect

Six different bar owners, six different businesses affected for better or for worse, one similar opinion.  The bar owners all agree that they should have had the right to decide what they can or cannot do with their own privately-owned business. On the other hand, some employees aren’t complaining and even “feel healthier” because they do not breathe in secondhand smoke all day and go home smelling like an ashtray. The ban has been in effect for six months now, and as businesses adjust to the new changes, patrons must take up smoking outside in the colder weather or simply nip it in the butt.

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