Mainstrasse Village Shows Organic Shift to Non-Smoking as Statewide Ban Grows in Popularity

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RIVER CITY NEWS | PAT LAFLEUR | JANUARY 4, 2015

“Smoking or non?”

It’s a question that has all but disappeared from the American dining industry over the last decade or so, as statewide smoking bans continue to pop up across the nation and research about the health risks associated with smoking keeps growing.

Kentucky remains one of the last states to balk at passing a statewide restriction on smoking indoors. Kenton County specifically, with its provisional approach to restricting smoking (primarily implemented through age ­limits for customers and staff), shows that locally we are a people with some seriously mixed feelings about the issue.

But while a recent study has shown an overwhelming majority of Northern Kentucky voters would support smoke-­free legislation, the largest entertainment district in Covington seems to be shifting organically to adapt to evolving opinions about tobacco smoke. For some local business owners, this reflects the diverse, conflicted opinions of their customers, even in the absence of a statewide ban.

In Mainstrasse Village, three new smoke-­free bars have opened within the last two years: Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, Wiseguy Lounge, and Gypsys, all located on Main St. Another Village spot, Pachinko’s on Sixth St., has switched recently from being a smoking to a non-­smoking bar.

No new business in Mainstrasse has allowed smoking.

Smoke-­free drinking and dining is nothing new to Mainstrasse, or Covington for that matter, especially since the passage of county­wide smoking restrictions in 2011. Five smoke­-free restaurants sit 100 feet or less from the intersection of Main and 6th St., the epicenter of Mainstrasse and have operated smoke-­free for years.

But the trend coming to Mainstrasse is notable because it is creating a neighborhood where patrons can feel free to light up, but just right next­ door, they’d have to snuff those out.

Jeff Brandt, who co-­owns Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, was one of the first to bring a non-smoking bar — that’s bar only, no food — to Mainstrasse, when he and his partners opened in 2012. Brandt’s decision to go smoke-­free is worth noting because, without a kitchen, his liquor license, and the age­ restriction of 21 it demanded, would have allowed him to permit smoking.

He will be the first to admit, “There’s nothing better than some bourbon and a nice cigar.”

But for him, the decision was about customer experience. “We did it out of respect,” he said, “for the building and for our customers.”

“I think it’s better for everyone involved,” he said.

For Gabe Myers, bar manager at Gypsys, going non­smoking was part of the identity and philosophy of the business, to create something not so typically “Mainstrasse.”

Before Gypsys moved in, the building was home to Dubbs Irish Pub, which was a smoking bar and in need of some serious TLC. The walls were painted black, there was one light-­producing window, and a perpetual haze of smoke. Now, Myers said, after five and a half months of intense rehab work, the space has been radically transformed into a significantly larger, warmly ­lit open floor plan. One without smoke.

“It’s more welcoming now,” said Myers. “We’ve had nothing but positive feedback.”

In a state with the second-highest smoking rate among adults in the country (according to Health Magazine), that’s noteworthy. “Years ago, if you told someone they can’t smoke (in Covington), they would be put off,” said Brendon Yancey, who has worked behind the bar at smoke-­free Wiseguy Lounge, located above Goodfellas Pizza, since its opening in 2012. “But nowadays, it’s becoming a selling point.”

Pointing to border cities like Covington’s unique location directly across the river from a state that has already set the precedent that bars and restaurants will be smoke­free, he thinks, “People are getting used to (non­smoking bars).”

Beyond customers’ expectation, Yancey also sees a mix of smoking and non­smoking establishments on the Village strip as good for business, creating a local economy with options. “Mainstrasse used to be the same bar over and over again,” he said. “Now, the variety is encouraging motion between the bars.”

Myers agrees. “The smoking bars are already here,” he said. “Gypsys is drawing a whole new crowd of people to the Village. That’s a good thing.”

And it’s doesn’t seem Gypsys or Wiseguy are losing their customers who smoke. Both offer large outdoor patio areas, equipped with space heaters or fire pits, to offer smokers a space that is outside but still comfortable. To Myers, this is key in a market like Covington’s that has such mixed feelings on smoking indoors.

“I’ve been working hard to add things that make that (outdoor) space more attractive,” he said.Gypsys recently installed an awning and added two fire pits to their back patio.

Wiseguy’s back patio is even larger, with two levels of seating. Pachinko’s also recently upgraded their patio area after making the switch to non­smoking.

Despite this apparent cultural ­shift though, there are still some who work in Mainstrasse and still worry a smoke-­free mandate would hurt their business. Frank Bechtold, a server at ZolaBar & Grill for over 10 years and a non­smoker, said, “I’d probably lose a lot of my lunchtime business if we went non­smoking.” Bechtold believes a lot of his lunchtime customers are professionals coming from downtown Cincinnati, where a smoke-­friendly option is not available.

Zola does offer a patio, but it is not covered and effectively unusable in colder weather.

Right across the street, Mainstrasse Village Pub appears even less equipped to offer such an outdoor alternative for smokers if a smoke-­free law passes. Curt Zinga, general manager of the Village Pub, estimates 8 or 9 of 10 of his customers are not only smokers, but patronize the Pub specifically because they know they can do so inside.

“People primarily come for the bar,” he said. “But they know they can smoke here, too. If (a smoking ban) happens, we’ll accommodate the best we can,” he said, adding that maybe the small concrete pad currently sitting unused behind the bar could be re-purposed into an outdoor smoking area.

In the absence of a smoke-­free law, the majority of Mainstrasse bars remain smoker­friendly. Of the 21 bars located on and around Main St., less than half have gone smoke­free, and the majority of those that have are known more for dining than drinking.

But whatever the likelihood of a statewide smoke­free law coming to Kentucky, the Village may be showing that legislators and lobbyists are only some of the players that can help Kentucky address this issue.