It is 12:35, lunchtime, and every so often the front door of the Casa Grande restaurant swings open and a sudden shaft of light streams into the cool darkness, sharply illuminating the empty booths of a half-deserted dining room.
"Look at this place," owner Chuck Wells says, surveying his restaurant. "How many people do we have in the bar? I'd be surprised if there was three people. We used to have people lining up to get in here. We used to go to 3:30, 4 p.m.--and now, by five (minutes) to 1 the place is almost empty."
Across town, on Bellflower Boulevard, Tom Marino greets customers as they crowd through the door of his Italian restaurant. Nearly every table is full. Waiters and waitresses bustle between the kitchen and the dining room. Business is not as good as it was last year, but it is not bad, either, Marino says.
A man dressed in a suit walks in. "Smoking or nonsmoking, it doesn't matter," he says to Marino. Marino smiles. "It's all nonsmoking."
It has been almost four months since a city law went into effect banning smoking in Bellflower's restaurants and severely restricting it in other public places. The law's impact has barely been felt by some but has sent others, particularly restaurant owners, reeling.
"It is killing us," Wells says.
Restaurant owners, especially those who own coffee shops, diners and restaurants with bars, say they are running out of money and time. Customers, disgusted by the law, have left in such numbers that these restaurant owners say they have been forced to lay off help and practically give away food in special bargains to make up for lost income.
But not everyone is struggling. Other business people around town, including owners of Marino's, Magdalena's Cafe & Pastries, Henry Moffett's restaurant and Sizzler Steak House, say business is about the same or down slightly. But, they say, there is no telling why.
"There was the war, the economy is a mess, people aren't spending money, and now, all of a sudden, everyone is blaming everything on smoking," Marino said.
City Council members, who passed the law unanimously in January after hearing reports about the dangers of secondhand smoke, say they are unconvinced that the law has hurt business. As time passes, they say, they hear fewer complaints and more compliments from restaurant patrons.
"It's been very quiet," Councilman Joseph Cvetko said. "I think people are getting used to it. No one calls me at home to complain. I just don't hear too much about it anymore."
No one has spoken out at council meetings either for or against the smoking ban since the ordinance was passed. City Council members have received 41 letters--20 opposed and 21 in favor of the ban.
"I think the ban on smoking is wonderful," reads a typical letter to the council. "To all of our Bellflower business people who post no-smoking signs, I say, 'God bless you.' You are doing the right thing."
But walk into the Cherokee restaurant or Casa Grande or Curly Jones Restaurant or Ming's or Denny's or Norm's or Ricci's Deli, and you are likely to hear another story. Owners of these and other restaurants have been gathering signatures of residents opposed to the ordinance. They and their customers, both smokers and nonsmokers, complain that Bellflower no longer lives up to its motto, "The Friendly City."
"It is killing Bellflower," says one nonsmoking customer, an elderly woman eating pancakes at a nearly deserted Curly Jones Restaurant on Alondra Boulevard. She jabs the air with her fork. "Business in Bellflower is going to hell in a hand basket."
A couple, also nonsmokers, sitting at a nearby table agree.
"Last I heard, this wasn't Russia," the woman said angrily. "It's a ridiculous law. People should be permitted to smoke. It's their choice. Nonsmokers are just a bunch of small-minded people who want things their own way."
Abraham Arefaine, the manager of Denny's on Rosecrans Avenue, said customers repeatedly ripped the no-smoking notice off his front door and threw it aside. "I finally had to put it in a glass frame," he said.
Nearly all restaurant owners said they have customers who ignore the "No Smoking" signs and the absence of ashtrays. They light up anyway.
"I have a regular customer that walks in the door with a pipe," Cherokee owner Patty Stevens said. "I tell him, 'You can't smoke in here.' He says, 'I know. Now get me an ashtray.' "
The law requires only that the owner tell the customer he can't smoke. If the customer persists, it is up to another customer to call the city and complain.
"You gotta bend the rules a little," said one longtime restaurant owner who asked not to be named. "You can't be too hard on a customer. I got a big place here. If they wanna smoke, I put them in a corner. This law is like a misdemeanor. It's just like jaywalking. No one cares."
Some restaurant owners and managers said that if they did not allow their customers to light up, they would have to close.