On July 5, 2010, Wisconsin effectively went smoke-free. The long-in-the-works and at-times contentious indoor smoking ban put an end to smoking inside bars, restaurants, and other workplaces. Advocates of the ban cited the obvious health benefits of not inhaling second-hand smoke while getting a drink or a bite to eat; critics bemoaned a “nanny state” run amok.
Five years later, it’s clear the ban is here to stay. In recognition of the fifth anniversary of Wisconsin not smelling like death when it gets home, we reached out to a handful of bar owners and bartenders to get their thoughts on Wisconsin’s indoor smoking ban.
Holly Doar—owner, Blackbird
“We were initially a little worried that the ban would affect business. At the time, it was a big change in the environment of a bar. Although we felt it was a good change, we worried how patrons would respond. If I remember correctly, business slowed for a very short period, but then returned to normal quickly thereafter.
“It’s easier to clean the bar everyday and we don’t have to worry about cigarette burn holes in the upholstery of our booths and arm rails. It’s funny to think we all sat in smoky bars prior to the ban. Seems like so long ago and surreal—like the idea of smoking on an airplane or at the workplace.”
Peter Jest—owner, Shank Hall
“I was okay with the smoking ban as long as it was state-wide. People know it is not up to us and understand when they have to smoke outside. One of the excuses people made not going out was they did not like the smoke in clubs. I’m not sure if it really got more people out, because sometimes people only smoke when they go out to bars or clubs, but overall it’s a good thing for everyone’s health. As a club owner, it does cost more—for busy shows we have to staff outside—but that is the cost of being in business.”
Teri Regano—owner, The Roman Coin
“I had quit smoking probably eight years before the ban. I am personal friends with our former state rep Jon Richards who was the author of the bill banning smoking. I told Jon that as a Democrat and supporter of choice, I was surprised that he would author such a bill. It was the only time that I can remember that we butted heads on a subject. I was extremely worried about how the ban would affect my tavern, as probably 75 percent of my customers were smokers. There were taverns all over the state that had already chosen to go non-smoking so my argument to Jon was, “Why can’t we make the choice?’
“Initially I was very bitter about the decision. It did have an adverse effect on my business for probably the first year, but then people got used to the fact that they had to go outside. I think that the other factor, that was even more influential in smokers returning, was that people missed the socializing aspect of going to a bar.
“There was, in my opinion, no way to remedy the situation. We had to just follow the law. I know that some bars took a chance and still allowed smoking, even going so far as charging patrons for ashtrays and using that money for a fund to pay the fines if they were caught. Since I spend so much time in my business, I was delighted to not smell of smoke every time that I left the bar, even if I had only been there for five or 10 minutes. I also enjoy that I am not constantly tempted to smoke, because even after 12-13 years of not smoking, I still want to.”
John Revord—owner, Boone & Crockett
“I worked at Yield when the ban was passed. In a single day, the smokiest of smoky bars I had ever worked at, in nearly a decade of glorious Marlboro-filled bartending, became breathable. Suddenly everyone stopped smelling like shit when they left the bar, and a whole generation of teary-eyed, bar-stool smokers found the patio tables out front.
“The Hotel Foster (of which I’m no longer associated) opened not long after the ban went into effect. Our entire initial decor plan would never have worked in the pre-ban era. I mean, the whole ‘smoking is deadly’ thing aside, have you seen what carpeted bars look like after a Friday night of Camel Lights being stomped out on the floor? Ew.
“The ban has been even better for my current establishment, Boone & Crockett. In the winter months we comfortably fit around 50 people in the main bar area. Put a cigarette in each of their mouths and you can see the issue. Sure we could have opened as a non smoking bar, but I think that most people saw that as a negative, pre-ban. We simply had (or at least were perceived to have) too large of a smoking community that was too adamantly against the whole idea.
“Coming from the ‘Holy crap, we can have nicer things in the bar now!’ epiphany that stemmed from the first smoke-free year at Foster, we were really able to up the decor game at Boone. Fabric booths. Area rugs. Fabric furniture. No way does that stuff last with a few hundred drunk folks playing with what essentially amounts to a fire-starting kit and kindling. I’m going three years strong on all of the original decor we installed day one.
“Do in think about it anymore? No. It’s actually super weird if you see someone light up a cigarette in a bar these days. I went to Memphis recently and it was a real trip to see everyone smoking. As much of a novelty as it was to witness, the old bar smell the next morning was a sober reminder of how much I enjoy the ban.
“Also people’s health. That’s important, too.”
Chris Schulist—owner, The Vanguard; former Cactus Club bartender
“Cactus was a notoriously smoky bar. There seemed to always be this haze that lingered like a halo over the bar. I was a heavy smoker at the time, so I didn’t mind at all. I remember before the ban happened here, a bunch of friends from Chicago were here for a show and they all had to go outside and get air because the ban had already happened in Chicago and they just couldn’t handle being in that haze.
“I quit smoking a few years before the ban went through and I started to hate being in it. I’d be making a drink and someone would turn their head and blow smoke right in my face because they were trying to blow it away from the person they were talking to at the bar. Maybe it was because I had quit, but it was fucking disgusting. I thought the ban was going to be great, and my point to smokers was that you didn’t smoke nearly as much! If it was cold, you would maybe have six or seven cigarettes on a night out instead of 15.
“I remember people saying that it was going to ruin bars, and blah blah blah smokers’ rights, whatever. It’s not going to ruin bars. Bars will be fine. I think it helped bars because more non-smokers would stop out for one or two drinks knowing that they weren’t going to come out of some place smelling like a bum’s asshole. And seriously, after the ban, all of the griping about it lasted like two weeks and everyone just adjusted. Even smokers became proud of themselves because they weren’t smoking as much. A friend of mine even said that it was a great way to talk to a girl who smoked by striking up a conversation outside.
“To give you an idea how gross bars were during the smoking ban, after the ban went through, we deep cleaned the walls at Cactus. I just remember the walls dripping like Coca-Cola. It’s amazing that we all spent so much time in those places and we didn’t care. I still have a leather jacket I used to wear back during that time. It still smells like ass. I don’t miss it all.”
BJ Seidel—owner, Burnhearts and Goodkind
“I was initially a bit concerned about how the numerous amount of smokers would impact our residential business. The last thing I wanted was large groups outside smoking all the time which had the potential to hurt business and the relationship we had with our neighborhood. Ultimately, I had been to other cities and knew that a smoking ban was not the end of the world.
“We had the reputation of being a very smoky bar so we did see a bunch of new customers once the bar aired out. Additionally, it was around the time the recession hit, and I feel, looking back, that simple economics played a bigger role in the small decrease of business we received at that time. It was also the time we started to intensify our craft beer program. The smoking ban really helped people taste and smell beer that they may have otherwise been oblivious to in a smoke haze. Whatever downturn our business felt quickly turned around and helped our business grow up. Picking up cigarette butts off the sidewalk sucks, but it sure beats sweeping them off the floor.
“As a new father, I was also happy that I could head home from work and kiss my kids without changing clothes and showering. And now I can wear the same clothes for a couple days.”
Eric Uecke—owner, Cactus Club
“I think the smoking ban was a great idea. Even smokers that I have spoken with over the last five years have no problems going home after a show without smelling like a tobacco campfire. I don’t think business has been affected in the least bit, and I am convinced that there are many people who did not go to shows based on the ridiculous amount of smoke hanging in the air back then. The smoke wreaked havoc on our PA and all other electronic and sound equipment, and I have noticed a significant drop in maintenance costs for that equipment.
“Also, I think extending the life expectancy of our customers and employees is a pretty sound practice.”
“When the ban was first introduced, any bar without outdoor seating was screwed. We took a massive hit at the bar I worked at during that time. It was summertime, festival season, and customers just wanted to keep doing what made them happy. They wanted to sit with their drink and smoke. They didn’t want to get up and go outside every 20 minutes, possibly leaving their drink and personal items unattended. Eventually, many bars in the city had to get creative and give customers a comfortable place to smoke. I think bar owners realized that places with patios or sheltered and heated seating areas in winter were getting all the attention.
“I personally don’t really see the smoking ban as something that has had a lasting negative effect on business. It think that after five years, people are just used to it. This is the norm now. As for bar owners, it’s just something you have to consider as part of your business plan. Do you have outdoor seating? Do you have neighbors that might complain about noise? Do you have receptacles for cigarette butts?
“My opinion on the actual law has never changed, though. I still believe that it should be up to the owner of the building whether or not to allow smoking inside. However, I have to say that it’s pretty wonderful going home from work at night and not smelling like an ashtray.”