Bar owners live with smoking ban by building patios

Building a patio
These workers are building an outdoor patio at Colleen's Sherwood Lounge in St. Paul. The owner says she's spending the money for the patio for one reason -- to keep her smoking customers.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

The word on St. Paul bar owners' lips these days is -- patio.

"Everybody seems to want one, and not just because it's summer," says Bob Kessler, director of Licenses and Inspections for City of St. Paul.

St. Paul bar owner
Colleen Humphreys owns Colleen's Sherwood Lounge on the east side of St. Paul. She says since the city's smoking ban took effect, she's lost about $175 a day.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Kessler says the city's smoking ban is the reason for all the talk -- and action. St. Paul's smoking ban in bars and restaurants went into effect at the end of March. Kessler says this year there's been a greater interest in patios than ever before.

"We have, actually, 13 applications just since February of this year. And last year, we had 13 for the whole year," says Kessler. "So it's become a very popular thing for licensed liquor establishments to add patios."

Workers are finishing smoothing the freshly-poured concrete for a new patio on the very busy White Bear Ave. on St. Paul's east side.

The patio is for Colleen Humphreys' Sherwood Lounge. She says since the smoking ban took effect, she's lost about $175 a day.

Humphreys is now spending $53,000 to build this patio for two reasons -- to keep her smoking customers, and lure others back.

The Saloon in Minneapolis has a patio that's so plush -- with a fireplace, heated benches and windows -- that some say it's stretching the definition of "patio."
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association

"I love my customers. They're just wonderful. They're so nice, and so you do it for them," says Humphreys. "I want to keep what I've got. I don't want to move. I like the city of St. Paul and I like the area."

The patio will have a brick fireplace, a water fountain, a roof, and plenty of outdoor ventilation for smoking.

"So I'm hoping they'll come back and enjoy it," says Humphreys. The smoking ban in Minneapolis has also inspired a patio boom in that city.

The crown jewel of Twin Cities bar patios can be found at the Saloon in downtown Minneapolis. It just opened in June, and reportedly cost nearly $500,000. It's got heated benches, a fireplace, ferns hanging from heated ceilings and glass windows.

In fact it's so plush, the city says the Saloon is stretching the definition of "patio." Even though the city approved the initial design, officials now say the Saloon's patio is more like a smoking room.

Patio ventilation
The patio at the Saloon in Minneapolis has a heated ceiling and several fans to disperse the smoke.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association

Minneapolis city staff are working to clarify the rules for what constitutes a patio. They are reportedly looking at St. Paul's guidelines for inspiration.

St. Paul's rules say a patio has to be built next to, but not attached to, the bar. It has to have natural ventilation and be seasonal in nature. That means only 50 percent of the walls can be covered. The rest of the structure's walls must be open to the air.

The city's patio requirements have been in place since the 1980s. But the organization representing bar owners says St. Paul and Minneapolis need to update their building codes.

"When the City Council passed a smoking ban, they didn't sit down and say what a patio will be," says Jim Farrell of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association.

Farrell says his organization dropped its petition drive against St. Paul's smoking ban precisely because they want the city to be more open-minded about what a patio is.

A patio or a smoking room?
The patio at the Saloon in Minneapolis opened in June. It reportedly cost nearly $500,000 to build. Since it's enclosed on all sides, city officials say it's more like a smoking room than a patio.
Photo courtesy of Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association

"If the establishment has the ability, geographically, to build a patio, and government allows for that -- what if someone can build an indoor patio, for say, an indoor smoking room, where they can create a negative air space, where air physically cannot come out of the room?" says Farrell.

But St. Paul's patio ordinance is clear in what it allows and what it doesn't, says Mayor Chris Coleman's spokesman, Bob Hume. And what it does not allow is smoking rooms.

"That's just not a patio. There's not going to be any backdoor smoking rooms coming into St. Paul," says Hume. "Second-hand smoke in enclosed places is a clear, known, public health threat. It was the reasoning behind the smoking ban in the first place. And there's no openness to changing that law."

Hume says the city is sympathetic to the bar owners, and has been working with them to fast-track patio designs that are within the law.

He says so far, no specific proposals have come before the city that challenge the current ordinance. But that could change when the weather cools, and smokers have to choose between sitting outside and staying home to do their drinking.

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