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Their Smoking Gun : Owners, Workers Blame Bellflower Tobacco Ban for Business Slump

March 07, 1991|MICHELE FUETSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELLFLOWER — Patty Stevens quit her waitress job last spring and husband Marvin stopped working in a Wilmington glass company so that they could buy their own business, the Cherokee Cafe on Bellflower Avenue.

They spruced up the 98-seat eatery's salmon-colored interior with booths. They installed trendy electric fans on the ceiling and laid new carpet on the floor. Business, the couple said, grew steadily until this week, when the city's new ordinance against smoking in public places went into effect.

On Tuesday, the first day of the ban, the cafe's receipts dropped $200--or 40%--according to Marvin Stevens.

"Now, I feel like I invested a whole lot of money for nothing," Patty Stevens said.

The Stevens were among a number of restaurant owners who said business had declined this week after the smoking ban, one of the strictest in the Southland, took effect. The City Council voted unanimously in December to ban all smoking in restaurants and most other public places, and restaurant owners have been warning since then that the ban would drive customers out of Bellflower and into neighboring tobacco-friendlier cities.

At Ricci's Delicatessen, about a mile south of the Cherokee Cafe on Bellflower Boulevard, waitress Jeannie Boehl was having a slow day Tuesday. "Maybe 10 or 12 of my customers have told me they won't be back," she said. Employees at Don-A-Vee Jeep across the street have been telling her for weeks that they will start driving six blocks to Cerritos or Lakewood restaurants rather than give up their cigarettes, she said.

At Marino's, a popular dinner house along the boulevard, Thomas A. Marino spent much of Tuesday night wondering about the health of his business. At 8:30 p.m. Marino, the general manager, reported one of the smallest crowds in the restaurant's nine-year history.

Marino was reluctant to attribute the drop in trade to the city's new smoking ban. It was only the first night, he cautioned. But he acknowledged that the number of diners was 35% below normal, and that before the ban, about 35% of the restaurant's tables had been set aside for smokers.

Restaurant owners have continued to lobby vigorously against the smoking ban, and two council members recently attempted to persuade their colleagues to modify the ordinance to allow restaurants to set aside up to 20% of their tables for smokers.

Council members Joseph E. Cvetko and John Ansdell, saying they had voted too hastily on the original law, proposed the revision last week. They failed to gain a third vote, but said they will suggest the revision again at the council's meeting March 25.

The council initially had planned to allow restaurants and other public establishments to set aside 80% of their seats for nonsmokers, then suddenly decided in December to ban smoking entirely in all restaurants. Secondhand smoke was dangerous to nonsmokers just as inhaling was to smokers, the councilmen said.

Mayor Randy Bomgaars said Tuesday night that he still favors the total ban, and would consider revisions only if restaurants could show after a lengthy period of time that the ban had hurt business.

He doubts the assertions of restaurant owners that the ban was the culprit behind the business slump.

"I'm not going to fall for the arguments at this point that businesses are leaving because of the smoking issue," the mayor said.

Patty Stevens acknowledged that business started falling off at the Cherokee before Tuesday, but she said that customers may have thought the ban was already in effect. The city bought an ad in the local Chamber of Commerce newspaper saying that Bellflower welcomed patrons to its smoke-free restaurants. The ad, Patty Stevens said, sent a message that smokers were not welcome in Bellflower.

Cherokee waitress Victoria Rodriguez, one of seven employees at the cafe, said she is concerned about her job. The City Council "didn't bother to think about the people that work here," she said.

Waitress Josephine L. Tiller said she has been collecting signatures from customers and workers in other restaurants on petitions urging the City Council to revise the smoking ordinance. "My husband's been on disability for five years, and we also help (support) our disabled daughter," said Tiller, who has worked there since 1983.

Meantime, business was booming at a topless bar called Fritz That's It, where patrons were eating and smoking while watching the dance show. Smoking is allowed in bars that don't prepare meals, but Fritz's customers sent employees to nearby Ricci's Delicatessen to fetch takeout orders.

The ordinance also exempts tobacco stores, private offices, residences and places of worship from the smoking ban.

The city's pool hall, Hard Times, and the bowling alley, Clark Center Bowl, are considered sports arenas, which are allowed to set aside 20% of their areas for smokers, explained Michael Egan, assistant to the city administrator.

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