Carl's Jr., best-known for its bacon cheeseburgers, onion rings and milkshakes, announced a policy change Wednesday that could have some of its tobacco-craving customers thinking of cold turkey instead.
Carl Jr.'s parent company announced that smoking will be banned at all of its 426 company-owned restaurants starting Jan. 1. The Anaheim-based regional hamburger chain said it is the first large fast-food chain to voluntarily adopt a smoke-free dining policy.
Carl Karcher Enterprises said it will also encourage its 140 franchisees, or non-company-owned restaurants, to adopt the policy.
"We will provide a healthier and fresher environment," said Donald Karcher, president of Carl Karcher Enterprises. "If someone lights up, the manager will approach them and politely let them know it is a nonsmoking restaurant."
Carl's new policy was praised by anti-smoking organizations and industry associations.
"We think it's great when our members make policies of their own voluntarily," said Jo-Linda Thompson, a government affairs specialist for the California Restaurant Assn. The trade group supports a statewide ban on smoking in all public places but opposes a ban limited only to restaurants.
Edward C. Cazier Jr., chairman of the American Cancer Society's California division, said the Carl's action is "very much in the public interest" and "will ensure that customers in Carl's Jr. restaurants are not involuntarily exposed to a known carcinogen: tobacco smoke."
For several years, Carl's Jr. has devoted two-thirds of its restaurant seating areas to nonsmokers, Donald Karcher said. But cigarette smoke still floats through the dining areas and can irritate nonsmokers, he said.
Carl's has been testing a nonsmoking policy in select restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles and Orange County since July, Karcher said. The experiment has shown that most customers favor curtailing smoking in public areas of the restaurants.
"A few of the guests got upset and said, 'We won't be back to your restaurant.' But after four to six weeks, they came back," said Karcher, who, like company founder and Chairman Carl Karcher, is a nonsmoker. "They are not coming to smoke; they are coming to have good-quality food."
Sarah Stack, an analyst for Bateman Eichler, Hill Richards in Los Angeles, said the smoking ban should be a hit with customers, particularly in health-conscious California.
"I think for nonsmokers, it's a great idea," Stack said. "There may be some backlash, but I think the company probably has enough evidence to warrant applying it companywide."
Spokesman for other fast-food chains expressed interest in Carl's new policy.
McDonald's spokeswoman Rebecca Caruso noted that 75% of the company's restaurants are franchised and decisions about smoking are determined by customer demand, area managers and local smoking ordinances.
Elliot Bloom, a spokesman for Taco Bell Inc., said the 3,200-restaurant chain allows smoking in compliance with local laws. The company has no plans for a smoking ban, he said, but "if that becomes an issue, we'll certainly revisit" it.
Jack-in-the-Box restaurants divides its restaurants into areas for smokers and nonsmokers, said Jan McLane Rieger, a spokeswoman for San Diego-based Foodmaker Inc., operator of the 1,038-store hamburger chain. But she was skeptical of the idea of a smoking ban.
"I think they (Carl's) are going to alienate some customers," she said. "We're not ready to do that."