Bill Loutos is worried.

A ban on smoking in all indoor locations might mean cutting staff and reducing hours at his business, Al’s Grill, 1100 Madison St.

While larger restaurants with bars can change their businesses to put more of a focus on dining if?#34;or when?#34;a ban is passed in Oak Park, diner owners don’t have that option.

Asked if the ban being phased in over a period of time would help, Loutos replied, “A period of time to do what?”

Like most proprietors, he wants to make the decision to go smoke-free himself.

“When the village sends my tax bill they don’t ask how I got my money,” Loutos said. On Sundays, smoking is allowed only at the counter because that’s what his customers want.

At 5:30 a.m. any weekday, the counter is full of regulars, people who are there five or six days a week, Loutos said. He estimated 85 percent of them are smokers. Other regulars come to eat lunch and have a cigarette. He said he’s made many new customers because he allows smoking, but has lost only one non-smoker.

The financial side is more of a struggle for diners, which don’t sell liquor drinks that are typically marked up higher than food. And other costs are putting the squeeze on his bottom line, such as a gas bill that quadrupled and tomatoes that rose from $10 a case to $70.

Loutos estimated smokers to be 20 percent of his business. They say they’ll stay if a ban is passed, but Loutos knows there are other options out there, especially for people who work at the nearby Rush Oak Park Hospital and drive through other towns to get to work.

“If you take [the smoking customers] away from me, I’m cooked,” Loutos said, adding that he wouldn’t want to cut staff or hours. “If I have an empty place I’m going to have to.”

John Konstantos, son of the George in George’s Restaurant, 145 S. Oak Park Ave., knows losing smokers can be tough. He pointed to Jack’s Family Restaurant in Skokie, which was open 24 hours/seven days a week before Skokie passed a smoking ordinance.

In January 2005, Jack’s owner George Koretos told Wednesday Journal his business was off 20 percent since a ban passed in 2003 in Skokie. He had to lay off staff and lower others’ salaries.

“[Diners] will go elsewhere. I’m tellin’ ya, they will,” he said.

But Konstantos said a phase-in would help in getting customers acclimated to the idea that they can’t smoke there anymore. “You can’t just dump stuff on people’s laps,” he said.

Jerry Tassos, owner of Maple Tree, 1034 Lake St., was even more optimistic.

A ban “will affect the bars more than it will affect us,” Tassos said. “I don’t think we’ll lose too many customers here at all.” Maple Tree is smoke-free on weekends from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tassos said more families come in when there’s no smoking.

Now that a ban seems imminent in Oak Park, restaurateurs are hoping smoking will be banned state-wide so they wouldn’t lose customers to nearby smoke-friendly towns.

House Bill 4338, which would ban smoking at most indoor public places, is on the Illinois House’s calendar for a second reading. State Rep. Karen Yarbrough, whose 7th district covers part of Oak Park and half of River Forest, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Yarbrough wanted to pass a state-wide ban last year, but compromised for legislation that has allowed communities to pass their own local bans. That effort took 20 years, she said.

“I think the timing may be too soon politically,” Yarbrough said, especially given that it’s an election year. She doesn’t expect HB 4338 to pass.

The Illinois Restaurant Association, which helped Oak Park restaurants fight off a push for a ban here last year, would probably not help them fight for a state-wide ban, said spokesman Andrew Ariens.

Member restaurants near state borders would not likely support such a measure, and the organization will protect all of its members, Ariens said.

“If nothing’s broken, then why fix it?” he said.

Ariens said the current bill before the House “seems pretty stringent.”

The organization’s member survey includes three questions on smoking bans, including whether members would support a state-wide ban. Ariens said the results have not been compiled for that survey.

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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