Region’s restaurants remove the ashtrays

The sun rose Tuesday on a different kind of day for restaurants that once permitted customers to light cigarettes over food, alcohol or cups of coffee.

Area restaurant owners braced themselves for all kinds of responses from patrons on the first day of a statewide ban on smoking at food establishments.

Tuesday’s early morning breakfast crowd was slightly thinner at the Bedford Restaurant, a country-cooking style eatery on U.S. 460 in Bedford.

Scanning the tables, owner Clay Pope said at least two of the restaurant’s regular morning smoking patrons were missing. Some threatened not to come back once the smoking law, passed by Virginia lawmakers earlier this year, took effect.

“I don’t know where they would go,” Pope said.

The new law requires that all restaurants be smoke-free, except for private clubs and establishments with separately ventilated rooms exclusively for smoking.

Gov. Tim Kaine argued for the new law as a workplace safety issue for restaurant employees exposed to secondhand smoke. On Tuesday, he made appearances at several restaurants around the state, including Home Team Grill, a Richmond sports-themed restaurant.

“The science about smoking and the effects of tobacco have been very, very plain for the last half-century,” Kaine said. “By passing this, we have really made [restaurants] a much safer workplace for the thousands and thousands of people who make that their livelihood.”

Meanwhile, back in Bedford, some of the longtime smokers were less than pleased. Edna Hickman stopped at the Bedford Restaurant for breakfast at 6:15 a.m. Tuesday; she said she smoked two cigarettes before she arrived. She knew that she would not be able to smoke there while drinking her morning coffee, which has been her routine.

“When I get through eating, I’d like to have a cigarette,” said Hickman, 74, while she ate eggs, bacon and toast at one of the restaurant’s square wooden tables.

A cigarette with discount relaxes her, she said, and “It doesn’t feel good at all” to not be allowed to smoke.

Billy Graham of Bedford, another daily customer who smokes, sipped a glass of unsweetened tea.

“We’re just going to have to deal with it,” he said.

Graham, 59, hopes that Clay Pope and his wife, Kathy, eventually will create a separate space for smokers inside the restaurant.

But that would be too expensive, Clay Pope said. It would cost about $50,000 for the Popes to turn a back room in their restaurant into a smoking area with a separate ventilation system.

The state smoking law is putting pressure on restaurant owners like the Popes to make space for customers to smoke. Still, the majority of Roanoke Valley restaurants, if they aren’t already smoke-free, opted to ban smoking entirely because some do not have the money to make significant alterations. It’s no secret that the industry has been hard hit by the poor economy.

Some exceptions include several Roanoke bars and restaurants, such as Awful Arthur’s Seafood Co. and Community Inn, that are fashioning separate spaces for smoking customers. Awful Arthur’s owner Todd Lancaster is paying $7,000 to $8,000 to install a glass partition for a back smoking room in his downtown location.

Other Awful Arthur’s restaurants in Roanoke and Salem have separate smoking areas. The Blacksburg Awful Arthur’s went entirely smoke-free on Tuesday.

The Virginia Department of Health will enforce the smoking ban through restaurant inspections and with law enforcement, if needed, said Gary Hagy, who directs the department’s food and environmental sciences division.

Individuals and restaurant owners who do not comply with the law will be fined no more than $25. A restaurant cannot be shut down for failing to comply with the law, Hagy said.

The first day of the smoke-free law did not appear to impact lunchtime dining at several Roanoke Valley eateries.

Shaun Long, an electrical contractor who ate lunch at the bar at Awful Arthur’s in downtown Roanoke, said the law will force him to step outdoors to smoke when he frequents bars at night. He does not typically smoke at lunch.

Lunchtime business was busier than expected at the Brambleton Deli in Roanoke County, said bartender Boogie Moore. Still, mostly nonsmokers took seats at lunchtime in the formerly smoking bar and dining area, he said.

“I love it now,” said John Morton, a firefighter who ate lunch with his friend Tuesday at the Brambleton Deli’s bar. He’s tired of his clothes smelling like cigarette smoke.

“Now you can actually come to the bar,” he said.

Staff writer Michael Sluss contributed to this report.


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