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Winners, losers, and unanswered questions in smoke-free SA

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Bar America: a Southtown icon, now smoke-free

When the city rolled out its sweeping smoking ban this summer, eager to make the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights list of smoke-free cities, the winners and losers were obvious. The winners: bars that already had sizable patios, cigar bars, and, many would argue, anyone with a set of lungs looking to imbibe clear of a carcinogenic cloud. Unaffected Alamo Heights’ bar and restaurant district sits ready to catch cigarette-puffing refugees aching for a drag while they sip their cocktails. And despite inclusion in early drafts of the ordinance, VFW posts, the River Walk, and the Shrine of Texas Liberty itself all escaped the ban. But if you’re an everyday pub, sports bar, or dive without a patio or enough space to build one: tough luck.

Judy Simpson, general manager at Finnegan’s on US 281 near Thousand Oaks, wagered her neighborhood pub has taken a 25-30 percent hit in sales. The future’s “looking a little better but not much,” Simpson said, as she and the landlord hash out plans for a patio.

Initially, Simpson considered building a properly cordoned smoking area with fencing, chairs, tables, and ashtrays on her front sidewalk. But complications arose from the presence of an ADA accessible ramp and the need for full visibility. Currently, the bar is separated from the front sidewalk by a vestibule with two sets of double doors. The lack of visibility invites patrons to walk off with drinks or, worse, pass them to minors. “What we’re trying to do is build a place you can smoke where you can take your drink and don’t feel like you’ve been ostracized from the rest of the bar,” she said. Simpson expects building to begin in December and complete sometime in January. She’s not worried about closing or laying anyone off. For now.

In puff-friendly Alamo Heights, the Broadway 5050 is catching the overflow, says General Manager and managing partner Danny Barborak. “People who have a cocktail often want a cigarette. … I’d say we’ve got some people stopping in here for a drink or two because it’s now a treat to smoke inside,” he said, estimating sales have risen a few percentage points since the San Antonio ban began.

Meanwhile, for Alibis on Commerce east of US 281 and two of the Blue Star bars, business has marched forward with nary a hiccup since each had patios before the smoke-ban rollout.

Scott Saulle, who slings spirits at both Joe Blue’s on South Alamo and Joey’s on North St. Mary’s, said the ban hasn’t so much reduced the crowds, just shuffled them around a bit. Patrons now tend to crowd Joeys’ cozy, two-floor patio (which features an outside bar on weekends) instead of the smokeless indoors. “On a Wednesday night, I might have three people sitting at the bar and 25 people sitting outside,” he said. “It’s really weird.”

Joe Blue’s and Alibis both sport wraparound patios. Business at the former is unchanged, Saulle said. And according to Joey’s head waitress Lisa Gonzales, diehard indoor smokers have simply been swapped by customers who would likely jet after one drink on account of smoke. Save for the crowd redistribution and the occasional intense debate on the ban, patron traffic is virtually unchanged.

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