Smoking policies can burn restaurateurs Featured

10:07am EDT July 22, 2002

A recent survey conducted by the Ohio Restaurant Association found that two-thirds of Ohio consumers believe restaurant owners should set smoking policies, not customers or the government. And the same number favors designated smoking areas.

The results seem clear-cut, but restaurant owners constantly grapple with the issue, says John Bahas II, incoming president of the Akron Area Restaurant Association, an organization comprising 350 restaurant owners in Summit and Stark counties.

“It’s a struggle as an operator,” says Bahas, a second-generation manager at the 265-seat Waterloo Restaurant in south Akron. “Just when you think everyone is non-smoking, you ban smoking and watch sales drop off 25 percent.”

Because the Waterloo allows smoking in certain areas, Bahas contends with the occasional irate customer. “I had a guy not long ago who was in a different dining room, but he was wigging out because he was positive he was breathing every drop of smoke. He didn’t want to pay for his breakfast, and I didn’t make him. What can you do?”

Bahas, also a trustee with the Ohio Restaurant Association, says local owners express similar sentiments to him.

“Restaurants are very concerned about liability. If you’re not preventative anymore, you’re going to get smashed... It only takes one suit to set a precedent.

“I would love to go non-smoking,” he continues. “I wouldn’t have to clean the ceiling tiles as often, I wouldn’t have to breathe it and it would reduce my liability.”

At his $2 million-a-year restaurant, Bahas uses separated seating areas and a fresh-air machine, which helps remove smoke from the air but can’t eliminate the nicotine.

“It’s a heated issue and it’s going to get worse. I think until we eliminate smoking [from society], we’re going to have a problem.”

One thing Bahas doesn’t want to happen: a government mandate like the one in California.

“Will the government one day tell me I can’t serve fatty french fries because they’re unhealthy?” he muses. “Don’t laugh. Crazier things have happened.”