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Clientele May Decide if Eateries Will Survive Smoking Ban : Business: Restaurant owners in a city that had a no-smoking law for 14 months debate its effect on patrons, profits and how it may affect other cities.

August 01, 1993|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BELLFLOWER — Restaurateur Tom Marino will admit, reluctantly, that he benefited from Bellflower's short-lived smoking ban.

He discovered that he liked his eatery without the haze of burning tobacco. So, he kept the no-smoking signs at Marino's Italian Restaurant even after Bellflower's law was repealed in May, 1992.

But Marino doesn't like the idea of city-imposed restrictions on smoking in restaurants.

He didn't like it for Bellflower, and he doesn't think it would be a good idea for Long Beach.

Enacted by the City Council in March, 1991, Bellflower's smoking ban was repealed 14 months later, after the election of two new council members who made smoking laws a campaign issue. During its brief tenure, the ordinance was the only such ban in Los Angeles County.

Now city councils in other municipalities, including Long Beach, Pasadena and Los Angeles, have adopted similar bans. Restaurateurs in Los Angeles, however, filed petitions that blocked the council's action and will put the issue to a citywide vote.

"As far as I'm concerned, local government should just stay out of it," Marino said, brushing invisible crumbs from a green vinyl tablecloth at the restaurant he has run at Bellflower Boulevard and Beach Street for 13 years.

But Marino also has good news for edgy restaurant owners elsewhere who might be worried about banishing customers who want to smoke. He survived the ban, even if business did drop a little, he said.

"I have friends with restaurants in Long Beach, and I tell them: 'If you have a good product and a nice atmosphere, you can survive anything they do to you,' " Marino said.

Curly Jones does not agree, however. His Bellflower eatery features an "Open 24 Hours" sign looming over its shingle roof at Alondra Boulevard and Clark Street. A banner out front proudly proclaims "$10,000 Keno Winner Here."

If anyone tried to make him prohibit smoking, he would throw up his hands and walk out, he said, even though he gave up his own Virginia Slims habit 20 years ago.

"Who wants a joint that doesn't allow smoking?" he asked.

From the now-quiet front in Bellflower, where the smoking-nonsmoking war ended a little more than a year ago, restaurateurs seem to agree on one thing: If your clientele comes for the food, don't worry. But if your guests are looking for coffee, easy talk and a cigarette, a smoking ban is a recipe for rough times.

Whether anti-smoking ordinances have a measurable effect on restaurants and bars is a matter of some debate.

One study, conducted by the Institute for Health Policy Studies at UC San Francisco, showed no significant change in restaurant revenues in nine cities, including Bellflower, that enacted smoking bans.

The study showed the percentage restaurants contributed to each city's total retail sales. Over six years, it found no significant change in restaurant percentages, before and after no-smoking ordinances were in effect.

But Bellflower Councilwoman Ruth Gilson prepared a chart using sales figures from the State Board of Equalization from January, 1988, through the third quarter of 1992. It showed a dip in restaurant sales during Bellflower's smoking ban.

Gilson's study did not compare restaurant sales figures to other retail outlets, and she admits that part of the revenue decrease could have been because of the recession. But Gilson maintains that the figures accurately show the effect of a no-smoking policy.

Sales climbed--even if only slightly--in local eateries after the ban was lifted, she points out, and the recession had not ended.

"If I had it my way, I would encourage everyone to quit smoking," said Gilson, who said she experimented with smoking only once and promptly turned green.

"But this is not a smoker's issue. It's a business owner's issue."

Gilson frequents Bellflower restaurants with her husband and three children, two of whom are allergic to tobacco smoke, but they have no problem as long as a no-smoking section is available.

During the early months of the ban, she said, she witnessed many potential customers walk out when told they couldn't light up. Gilson was elected to the council in 1992 after campaigning against the no-smoking ordinance. She voted to repeal the city law along with council members John Ansdell and Ken Cleveland.

Marino also watched customers walk out because of the ordinance, he said, but he has gained others, committed nonsmokers, since his restaurant became known as a smoke-free haven.

Jones' coffee shop did not fare so well. In an attempt to retire, Jones sold "Curly's Place" in 1990. When the smoking ban went into effect, business was damaged so badly that about 14 months ago, the new owner simply locked the doors and walked away, Jones said.

"That ban was the blow that sent him reeling," Jones said. "This place isn't worth anything if folks can't smoke."

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