Up in Smoke 

At Big Chicks, good intentions ran afoul of the free market.

Michelle Fire's Uptown bar, Big Chicks, went smoke free on January 16. Nonsmokers loved it, and so did people who were trying to quit. Even some smokers seemed to appreciate not waking up in the morning reeking of someone else's stale Camel Lights. "We almost did it," says Fire. "It was pretty darn close--we just didn't quite make it."

When the City Council passed the smoking ban last December, it gave freestanding bars and taverns until July 1, 2008, to comply, but Fire figured why wait. She canvassed her regulars, and the feedback was overwhelmingly in favor of banning smoking immediately.

Long and narrow, with ceiling fans providing most of the circulation, the 20-year-old bar at 5024 N. Sheridan was by all accounts pretty stinky. On a busy night, one regular told me, you didn't even have to light up--the secondhand smoke was enough. Fire worried about losing some customers but thought the benefits were worth the risk. "My mother was a smoker. My best friends are smokers, and I know their decisions are based on where they can smoke. But it was an emotional decision. One of my best friends was dying of emphy-sema, and it just seemed like the right thing to do."

On the night of January 15 Fire greeted patrons with free cigs and the exhortation "Smoke your lungs out." She even encouraged them to steal the ashtrays on their way home. Fire can claim a loyal patron base, built up over the years through her avid engagement with the community and with niceties like free food on Sundays, but by March she was in trouble. Smokers headed to the back patio or out onto the sidewalk for a puff, but business fell off, on the worst nights by as much as 50 percent. She had to lay off a manager and a bartender, and when two other employees left she didn't replace them, trying to cover their shifts herself. She hoped the arrival of warm weather would help, and it did. But it brought a new problem: in the last few weeks the number of smokers outside the bar prompted one neighbor to complain to the cops.

On Friday, June 16, Fire caved. She announced to her e-mail list, after thanking her patrons for their support through the "tough winter and rainy spring," that she would, starting the next day, allow smoking in the main bar after 9 PM. The adjacent "salon," a similarly long, skinny, if better-lit room running parallel to the main bar, would remain smoke free, as would her neighboring restaurant Tweet (which has always been nonsmoking).

It's hard to say how many other bars have tried to go smoke free ahead of the deadline. Bucktown's Charleston axed smoking back in October. Owner Wendy Pick says she lost a few regulars but gained some new ones, and while business is a little slower--down about 25 percent at its worst--it started coming back up this spring. "It's my bar and it's my decision," she says. "I love my regulars, but I'm a cancer survivor, and I couldn't stand it anymore."

Others have gone for creative compromise. At Schubas you can smoke in the front room only, while the Hideout has a floating smoking policy (front bar only, back room only, outside only) subject to the wishes of the bartender on duty and the bands onstage. Neither appears to have suffered a drop in business, but they're also music venues and have something to offer patrons beyond cocktails and clean air.

Big Chicks caters to a mostly gay and lesbian clientele, and gay bars across town are a bit ahead of the nonsmoking curve. One of the six rooms at Halsted Street's popular Sidetrack has been smoke free since 2004. The Minibar, also on Halsted, opened in late 2005 as a nonsmoking spot, and the owners are planning to open a smoke-free wine bar next door sometime soon. But when T's, in Andersonville, tried to go smoke free in January, patrons made their displeasure clear, and the ban only lasted a few days. Smoking's now allowed at the bar only. "It's hard to please everybody," says a manager. "It certainly would have been easier if the city had just made a complete ban and then we wouldn't have had a choice."

Last Wednesday, a few days into the new policy, Big Chicks seemed busy enough. Twenty or so men and a few women hung around the bar while members of the Euchre Club of Chicago hunched over tables in the salon, wrapping up their twice-weekly game. Near the door, above a life-size cutout of brassy vaudeville legend Eva Tanguay that's often mistaken for Fire herself, a mirror ball swayed in the breeze from the fans. Behind the bar stacks of Juicy Fruit and Big Red shared shelf space with a box of Nicorette bearing a little handwritten sign: 2 for 75 cents. Maybe ten people were smoking.

"I think she had a good idea--she was just ahead of her time" said Richard Wagner, a regular and a smoker. "Unfortunately, where there's gay men and alcohol there's going to be smoking." Wagner stuck with the bar through the winter, huddling on the patio with the other smokers. He points out that even loyal patrons like him contributed to the bar's money woes--when you're outside smoking all night you aren't inside spending money on drinks.

Another man, who didn't want me to use his name, said he lives around the corner and has been coming to the bar for years--but when Big Chicks banned smoking? "I went to Sidetrack." He thinks that Fire made a big mistake in January, but that she's making a bigger mistake now, because no one will be happy.

"Everything we're going through is really like a trial run for what the rest of the city is going to go through," says Fire. "I thought of it as a noble experiment, and everyone's come away from it with a better understanding of the other side's position."

"I feel so guilty smoking in here," said Wagner, sparking up a Marlboro Light.

"Smoke 'em if you've got 'em," said the bartender with a shrug.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.

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