Bars adjust as air clears from smoking ban

A year after ban takes effect, bars see slight increase in net sales

John Goodman, owner of the Wild Buffalo House of Music, saw a temporary dip in customers after the smoking ban went into effect in December 2005. His business was non-smoking before the ban, and although some customers left to explore new options, he said they eventually returned.


Heidi Schiller

The smoke has officially cleared for bars and taverns that once allowed customers to light up.

In June, the Washington State Department of Revenue released a report concluding that the Initiative 901 smoking ban, which went into effect December 2005, appeared to have minimal effect on the overall income of state bars and taverns.

The report found that gross business income for bars and taverns increased 0.3 percent in 2006, a slight decrease compared to 1.1 percent average annual growth from 2002 through 2005.

It also found that while income from gambling activities in bars and taverns declined, it was offset overall by growth in taxable retail sales of food and drink, which grew 3.6 percent in 2006, compared to 2.1 percent average annual retail sales growth for 2002 through 2005.

Although the department did not attempt to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the ban and business revenues, the report stated the numbers suggest that bars and taverns may have lost some smokers, but gained customers drawn to a smoke-free environment. It went on to state that while some drinking places may have been hard hit by the ban, overall the industry appeared to have been able to adapt.

Travis Holland, owner of The Horseshoe Café, said his restaurant and its bar, the Ranch Room, are only just recovering from the initial estimated 25 percent loss of sales after the ban went into affect.

Sales have slowly come back for the once-smoke-filled restaurant and bar since then, and he said the Horseshoe is now operating at 5 to 10 percent ahead of its December 2005 sales (after the smoking ban went into effect). Holland said he is still astonished he’s been able to pull through.

“We’d had normal sales until then, then (the ban) chopped our legs off from underneath us,” he said. “We’re still scratching our heads and thinking we should have been gone in June (2006).”

He attributed the sales downturn not as much to a decline in customer counts, which fell about 5 percent, but because the average ticket price fell. Customers stopped spending as much time in the restaurant because when they left to smoke outside, they tended to leave the restaurant altogether.

Holland also noticed the ban resulted in a change in clientele. Before the ban, his sales surged at the beginning of the month because he said he believes many of his customers were on fixed incomes. Now, sales are more stable throughout month, which he said leads him to believe the bar is less reliant on fixed-income customers.

Pootie Powell, owner of The Grande Ave. Ale House, which allowed smoking before the ban, said she, too, has noticed a change in clientele since the smoking ban took effect. She’s seen an increase in new customers and now has a broader clientele, but saw a slight decrease in customers who smoke, she said. Also, smokers tend not to stay as long now as they did before.

“Why? Because they want to chain smoke,” she said.

Powell said the bar’s sales declined about 20 percent initially, but now are above where they were before the ban.

“At first I was scared (the ban) would hurt business quite a bit,” she said. “Now I feel it was a good thing because the place is a lot cleaner, it smells better and there’s no fear of a burning cigarette starting a fire.”

John Goodman, owner of the Wild Buffalo House of Music, did not support the ban, even though his business had been smoke-free from its inception. He said he was concerned about losing nonsmoking customers who would want to explore new nonsmoking bar options. In the end, only a few did, and most eventually returned to the bar as loyal customers.

Goodman said the ban’s clause mandating people smoke 25 feet away from open bars and windows has affected his business, because customers can no longer smoke in his front patio area and must walk down the street to light up.

“I think its absurd,” he said. “We were one of the first bars to actually go smoke free, but this is going to far.”

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