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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : Sure, Patrons Must Be Satisfied--But Will I Serve Time?

June 27, 1993|SEAN MACPHERSON | Sean MacPherson is the co-owner of Olive, Small's K.O. and Swingers

I am a restaurant owner--specifically, a host. I shake hands. I laugh loudly, regardless of whether or not the joke is humorous. I kiss many women's cheeks. I enjoy this part. I kiss the cheeks of some European men. I accept this part. I remain discreet as famous attached people have late-night trysts in my restaurant. I console broken hearts and broken careers. I massage shoulders and egos. I flatter whenever I can. I tell funny little tales. I buy people drinks. In short, I do anything and everything to make my customers happy. Being a professional host has a long and illustrious history, and one rule--accommodate the client.

Recently, the City Council, with Marvin Braude leading the way, passed a non-smoking ordinance in restaurants in Los Angeles. As part of my job, I go to great lengths to accommodate my guests. This includes providing both smoking and nonsmoking sections. Much of my clientele consists of international entertainment people, who view smoking as an integral part of dining. On the other hand, many people, myself included, are health-conscious nonsmokers. Surprisingly, it has been relatively painless to juggle these two groups.

Now, I am faced with the prospect of up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine if I allow a patron to smoke. But what determines how harshly I will be penalized? Is it a small fine for Marlboro Lights and time for Lucky Strikes? And what about menthols?

I regularly buy people cocktails for a variety of reasons--not limited to making them wait too long for their reserved table. Frequently, I'll buy a party dessert if I have to ask for their table in order to seat that waiting party. And, of course, there's always the spilled coffee on Aunt Louise's new dress--meaning an entirely complimentary evening, not to mention dry-cleaning bills. So there is a certain financial price I am willing to pay to accommodate my guests.

Now, as a restauranteur, I am accustomed to being treated as a criminal. My restaurant has been raided by the Los Angeles Police Department several times. They have arrived incognito and shined flashlights in the eyes of patrons--perhaps checking to see if they were intoxicated. They asked for I.D.'s from everyone at a specific table, only to find there wasn't a person under 35--after all, this is Los Angeles, the land of plastic surgery. Such intrusions by our local authorities have resulted in a round of drinks for the entire restaurant--courtesy of the host. But that's the price one pays to accommodate customers.

On one occasion, failing to find any underage patrons or fire-code violations, the police proceeded to go through the entire kitchen. To this day, I have no idea what they were doing there. I guess they wanted to make sure our Caesar Salad was up to snuff. Since everything checked out, including our Caesar, they went behind the bar and shined their flashlights in the liquor bottles. Although I heard one woman at the bar refer to a police officer as "so cute," I found the entire ordeal offensive.

After much time and effort, the police officer found a tiny particle of unidentified debris in the bottom of a bottle of Armagnac. For this I was cited, sent to court with people I consider genuine criminals--wife beaters, robbers, people accused of assault with a deadly weapon. Don't forget, I kiss cheeks for a living. When I was called to the bench, I gulped and meekly pleaded guilty to having an unidentified dust particle in my Armagnac. I was convicted and paid a $600 fine.

Ironically, after being treated as a criminal by the Los Angeles authorities, I am now being asked to behave as a policeman. If I don't perform my policing duties, I will be charged as a criminal. The city expects me "to protect and to serve" my customers by asking them to abstain from smoking. But I have made a career of never asking anyone to abstain from anything. Should I now ask my clientele to abstain from eating red meat or having unprotected sex? Should I require them to drink one glass of red wine with each meal? Perhaps, I should post a warning about the possible dangers of cellular-phone use?

I want to continue to be a law-abiding restauranteur. Yet, just as I continue to reach into my pocket to accommodate my guests, somehow I see myself ultimately at the mercy of the no-smoking ordinance. Paying the fine may be just another cost of doing business in Los Angeles. My accountant has calculated my hourly rate for kissing cheeks, and has informed me it would be cost-effective to spend a few hours in jail--where smoking is still allowed.

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