Bar builds deck for smokers

The bar owner hopes to overcome slow business due to the smoking ban.

When city and county officials imposed a smoking ban in March, many Stub and Herbs customers fled, said Sue Jeffers, owner of the 66-year-old bar.

Two months later, college students left town in droves and the East Bank hangout sank into a financial hole, she said.

“In the summer, we were a nonprofit organization,” Jeffers said outside the bar, puffing on a cigarette. “And people don’t stay in business long that way.”

To win back some of her smoking customers from Columbia Heights, Minn., and St. Paul bars, Jeffers decided to raze an adjacent building to make room for a 180-person smoking deck. The deck, slated to open by the weekend, cost Jeffers $30,000, she said.

Despite trimming margins with staff cutbacks, increased prices and efforts to woo smokers back – live music, Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments – the crowds haven’t returned, she said, adding that building the deck was not a matter of choice.

“Me, like 42 other bar and restaurant owners, were forced to build these decks Ö to compensate for the loss of business from the smoking ban,” she said.

Jeffers received a permit for the deck this summer after a brief public hearing.

Before and after the ban went into effect, Jeffers and other bar and restaurant owners fought it through the courts, she said. In March a Hennepin County judge dismissed a temporary restraining order to block the ban. Bar owners have since appealed. They also have lobbied the Hennepin County Board for partial or complete repeal.

So far their efforts have failed. City leaders in Bloomington, Minn., last month reaffirmed their ban after finding negligible economic impact. Hennepin County is reviewing the ban, and economic data will be presented at a meeting later this month, according to the county Web site.

Second Ward Minneapolis City Council member Paul Zerby, an ardent supporter of the ban, said the “devastating” health impact of secondhand smoke trumps economic concerns.

“You can talk about the economics, but to be in denial about the health effects would be just irresponsible,” he said.

But Jeffers calls secondhand smoke health claims junk science.

“Secondhand smoke will go down in history as one of the biggest scams ever perpetuated on the general public,” she said.

Inside the smoke-free Stub and Herb’s on Monday night, patrons prepared for their fantasy football drafts, sipped beer, and occasionally stepped outside for a smoke. After striking the dartboard bull’s-eye, senior history student Derek Sieburg, a smoker, offered his take on the ban.

“I think private businesses should be able to make their own rules,” he said.

His friend, accounting senior Mike Hamilton, said the new smoking deck will give Stub and Herbs an economic advantage.

“Usually (smokers) have to step in the street; someplace we can go, and we feel like outsiders, and stupid,” he said.

Jeffers said since the deck will not be used once it snows, she expects business to pick up in the spring, perhaps by 20 percent. But she said that if crowds resemble those of last summer, she may lock Stub and Herbs’ doors and play golf rather than lose money.