Stubbed Out

Despite hefty losses, Minneapolis bar owners can't get anyone to reconsider the smoking ban

Ask Jeff Moritko about his role in the smoking ban, and he'll offer up a disclaimer: "I'm a dumb Polack bar owner from northeast Minneapolis." Delve a little deeper, and Moritko, the owner of Mayslack's for the last eight years, will admit he gladly participated in the smoking-ban task force a year ago. The idea, he was told, was to hash out a ban that would appease the antismoking advocates while protecting business for bars around town. "Honored," is how Moritko says he felt when Mayor R.T. Rybak asked him to come to the table.

But within the opening minutes of the first meeting last summer, Moritko got the distinct feeling he was outnumbered. There were only two other bar owners in a group of about 25 people, and the rest--antismoking crusaders, city officials--were clearly looking for nothing short of a total ban. Rocco Forte, the former chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department who's now in charge of the city's regulatory services, led a total of three meetings. None of them, according to Moritko, lasted more than an hour--barely long enough to talk about various ban proposals. From day one, Forte had distributed a proposal that closely resembled the ban that the City Council approved later.

"It wasn't quite what some of us had in mind," Moritko says now. "The task force wasn't there for creative input. It was a forgone conclusion, and nobody wanted to hear what the bar owners had to say."

Jeff Moritko, owner of Mayslack's, has seen his bar biz take a tumble since the smoking ban
Bill Kelley
Jeff Moritko, owner of Mayslack's, has seen his bar biz take a tumble since the smoking ban

In the months leading up to the ban, which went into effect on March 31, many tavern keepers and nightclub managers warned that the full effects of the ban hadn't been considered. They argued, for instance, that sending people outside to smoke would create a number of hazards, like litter and noise, as well as impenetrable crowds at the entryways of most establishments. More than that, they warned that the gatherings on sidewalks would be unmanageable, and possibly conducive to muggings or assaults. Though such concerns were shrugged off, any regular bar-hopper can see that many of their fears have come true.

Most important, though, is the financial impact. Most bar owners were concerned that the ban would lead to loss of business in off-hours, keeping regulars and even nonsmokers away. (Nobody likes to sit in an empty bar, the thinking went, no matter how clean the air.) Right before the antismoking ordinance went into effect, a group of bar owners in Bloomington and Minneapolis sought a temporary injunction against the ban, which was denied in part because any prospective damage to the bars' bottom line was unproven at that point. Then last month, a different group of bars--mostly in or near northeast Minneapolis--again sought a restraining order, this time providing details of their financial duress in the wake of the ban.

The plaintiff's evidence--from sworn affidavits--is striking. "Revenues at the U Otter Stop Inn are down 65 percent," according to the complaint, "and there have been at least three days in which the bar has taken in less than $20 in gross receipts a day." Business at Gabby's Saloon and Eatery in Northeast are down 12.4 percent from April 2004 to April 2005, and 10 of 93 employees have been laid off. Johnny A's on West Broadway saw an 18 percent drop in April from last year to this year. Jax Café, an old-school supper club in Northeast, was seeing food and liquor sales up by $30,000 a month (roughly $380,000 in total monthly revenue) from winter 2004 to this past season. But in April, when the ban took effect, sales dropped some $64,000 from the same time last year. And Escape Ultra Lounge, in Block E, has reduced operations from six to four nights a week--sometimes offering free drinks until midnight just to lure customers in off the streets.

"This is a real problem," says Jeff Ormond, owner of Gabby's. "We don't have a lot of time to correct it. You'll see a lot of bars closing in a month's time."

Despite such stark numbers, District Court Judge Charles Porter denied the restraining order last Wednesday. Though he found instances of "irreparable harm" financially due to the smoking ban, he refused to issue any relief for the plaintiffs.

 

Ormond and Moritko have not stopped fighting. In conjunction with more than 60 bars and restaurants around town, they've formed the Minneapolis Hospitality Association. Various bar owners in the association share stories about trying to adjust to life after the ban, noting the common hazards that come with it: altercations out on the sidewalks, more money spent on propane to keep heat lamps going outside, patrons stepping out for a smoke and skipping out on a tab.

"Everything that's happening now, we said would happen," Moritko says.

Aside from the day-to-day headaches, a number of proprietors of joints ranging from Harvey's to Grumpy's to Déjà Vu all bemoan the political reality. Most say they have received little more than lip service from city officeholders. Mayor Rybak, according to one source, even refused to discuss a compromise on the ban at City Hall one day.

The MHA group has had meetings with three City Council members, including Natalie Johnson Lee and council president Paul Ostrow. Both expressed condolences, but not much else: In a citywide election cycle, nobody has the fortitude to even bring up a reconsideration of the ban.

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