OP restaurateurs prepare to fight proposed smoking ban

? Owners fear loss of business, contend choice of allowing smoking should be left to each restaurant.

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By DREW CARTER

The Illinois Restaurant Association met last week in Oak Park to discuss how it will help area restaurants fight a proposed smoking ban in all public places in the village.

The association and an estimated 20 local restaurateurs were expected to voice their opposition to the proposed ban at a village board meeting Tuesday night after press time, at which the board was expected to vote on whether to forward the matter to the Health Commission for a public hearing.

The association will voice its opposition to the ban as long as it's being discussed, said Andrew Ariens, an IRA spokesman.

"We will be there every step of the way," Ariens said.

The association holds that the ban would be bad for all Oak Park businesses.

"The role that restaurants and the hospitality industry play in the strength and revitalization of certain areas in Oak Park should not be lost on anyone," IRA Director of Government Affairs Donovan Pepper writes in an e-mail message to Oak Park business leaders.

Pepper argues that the ban would lower restaurant sales and reduce hotel occupancy, which would lead to job loss and less foot traffic, thereby hurting retail sales. The tax effects would be felt by the village and other taxing bodies.

"Don't be fooled?#34;this lost revenue will be sought to be made up by the village in other ways," he writes. "Whether it's increased license or permit costs, gas taxes, utility taxes or even the recently increased liquor tax rate ... other revenue sources will be reviewed."

Colleen McShane, the IRA president, who also lives in Oak Park, said after last week's meeting that it's a matter of choice for restaurateurs.

Cigarettes are "a legal product that governments want to selectively ban in certain communities," McShane said. "It ties the hands of restaurateurs that are just trying to cater to as many kinds of patrons as possible."

Jim August, owner of Cafe Le Coq, 734 Lake St., agrees. He chose to make his restaurant smoke-free, but will oppose the smoking ban because it limits the ability of restaurateurs to decide.

"They need that flexibility," he said. "They're responding to their market."

One of the major arguments for the smoking ban is that smoking in restaurants and other public places is a health issue, especially for employees who are around second-hand smoke for hours.

But August said that employees know the risks, and choose to work in smoky environments because they know they can make money there.

McShane said that dealing with smoking as a health issue should be taken up by state or federal governments?#34;if it's that bad, smoking should be banned everywhere, she said.

Oak Park restaurateurs worry that they would lose business under the ban to nearby communities where smoking would still be welcomed.

Dennis Murphy, owner of Poor Phil's, said Oak Park restaurants are in competition with every restaurant within a 30-minute drive. He had "no idea" how much a ban might affect his bottom line, but said it definitely would have a negative effect, pointing to recent bans in near-north Chicago suburbs.

Jack's Family Restaurant was open 24-hours a day in Skokie for 39 years until smoking laws were established in September 2003, said George Koretos, the restaurant's owner.

"It's affected us a lot," Koretos said of Skokie's law, which required him to ban smoking throughout his restaurant, despite having good separation between smoking and non-smoking sections.

First to go were the high school and college students who made up most of his late-night crowd. Although smokers composed about one-fifth of his total customers before the ban, about half of his evening customers were smokers, he estimated.

Sales at Jack's were off 20 percent in 2004, Koretos said.

He did away with the overnight shift, now closing the restaurant at 1 a.m. He laid off staff and lowered the salaries of other employees.

"[Diners] will go elsewhere. I'm tellin' ya, they will," he said.

Other establishments contacted for this article said their businesses were not affected by Skokie's law, especially after an amendment in July that allowed bars whose food sales compose less than 25 percent of overall sales to allow smoking. Jack's was frequently cited as being the hardest hit Skokie restaurant.

Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

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