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One Restaurateur's Answer: A Smokers' Country Club

July 07, 1991|TINA GRIEGO

This is no Riviera or Bel-Air or Wilshire Country Club.

There is no screening process. No credit check. No need for personal references from six friends. No $60,000 to $100,000 initiation fee.

At Curly Jones Country Club in Bellflower, all it takes to become a member is five bucks and a cigarette. For that (and sometimes less--owner Norman Chien usually kicks in the $5), members gain entree to a smoke-filled banquet room in Chien's coffee shop.

Never mind that smoking in restaurants has been banned in this city for nearly four months. Chien found his way around that shortly after the ban went into effect and 60% of his customers went elsewhere.

"The law says you can smoke if you are in a private club and a private room," Chien said.

In fact, the ordinance reads: "Restaurant meeting rooms in public rooms (shall not be subject to the smoking restrictions) while these places are being used for private functions."

As Chien sees it, the private functions of the country club members are simple: eating and smoking.

"Eating and discussing sports and whatever," Chien said. "It's like a meeting."

Inside the banquet room, behind a sliding wooden door above which two nonsmoking signs are posted, a handful of people sit hunched over cups of coffee, scrambled eggs and pancakes. There is a clear brown glass ashtray at every table. Cigarette smoke curls upward from ashtrays crammed with ashes and butts.

"This law is what you call taking people's rights away," says Norwalk resident Junior Enders, a machine shop worker with a pack-a-day habit.

"You know, they say it's because of secondhand smoke," his wife replies between bites.

"That's a bunch of bull," Enders says. "My grandpa lived until he was 99 years old, and he smoked all the years of his life."

Enders' outburst catches the attention of Bob Fox, who has been reading a book in the next booth. A large man with a black panther tattooed on his left forearm, Fox has been smoking for 20 years.

"The ones that do the bitching are the ex-smokers," he says to Enders. "All they got to do in life is bitch."

Chien started the country club shortly after the ban went into effect, and estimates that he has sold or given away 50 memberships. While smokers who receive a membership card may delight in Chien's attempt to brazenly outflank a law they think is prejudiced, not everyone is as pleased. Several complaints about the country club were telephoned in to City Hall, and Chien on June 16 became the first business owner to be cited for breaking the smoking law. He is to appear in court July 16.

The country club also has rankled City Council members.

"The council has taken the position where we are not going to be set up and made a laughingstock," Councilman Randy Bomgaars said.

And some other restaurant owners have complained that it is not fair that Chien is allowing people to smoke while they obey the law and lose customers.

But Chien is unrepentant. Even with the country club, he says, he has not been able to recapture all of his lost business.

Chien said he once brought in $2,000 in daily breakfast receipts but is lucky now if he makes $700. Rent costs him $5,605 a month. His payroll is about $16,000 a month, and he says he must spend $20,000 a month for food. In all, his expenses average about $50,000 a month. In April, his receipts totaled $40,000, down about 40% since the ban began, he said.

"I can't make it like this," he said. "I see people come to the door, they see the 'No Smoking' sign and they turn around without coming inside. I have spent a lot of money on this place, and I don't want to lose it because of the city. If I don't do this, my business is finished."

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