Societal, law changes have made smoking in bowling centers passé By Mark Miller



    Republished courtesy of (Aug. 3, 2011)

    BowlingPins.jpgEver since bowling came to America in the 1800s, it has been synonymous with smoking.

    At first, it was played in smoke-filled taverns with lanes. Even when numerous standalone establishments were built in the 1900s, there nearly always was a bar. After all, anywhere drinking was popular, so too was smoking.

    Smoking was considered an every day pastime for nearly 200 years as people partook in theaters, restaurants, airplanes and other public places. Not coincidentally, bowling’s boom years following World War II though the 1970s corresponded with this time when nearly half of American adults smoked.

    But attitudes started changing in 1964 with the famous U.S. surgeon general’s report that cigarette smoking was a health hazard. Later, studies talked about the effects of second-hand smoke. Suddenly, smoking became a health issue with changes in public opinion, warning labels on smoking materials, cigarette advertising restrictions and anti-smoking campaigns.

    To accommodate the new landscape, some public places, including bowling centers, began offering smoking and non-smoking accommodations. Major broad bans came later like smoking on long airplane flights in 1989 and on all domestic routes in 2000.

    It wasn’t until California legislators fully enacted the nation’s first statewide workplace ban in indoor public places in 1998 that all businesses were forced to make changes. Since then, more than half of U.S. states have followed suit. And most states without widespread bans allow cities or counties to enact their own bans. Only Oklahoma has no kind of legislated ban.

    As smoking became less cool and done in fewer places, the adult smoking rate dropped to 20 percent. Yet some bowling centers chose to keep catering to smokers while others opted to go smoke-free.

    “For me, the switch started in the mid-80s,” said Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America Vice President, Business Development Bart Burger, who worked 25 years for Brunswick. “Until then, there were predominantly league bases and in leagues as much as 35 to 40 percent were smokers. Smoking was accepted as part of the league.

    “The challenge for the proprietor is where the center is like a second home you are told you can’t do something. You’ve created a Cheers-friendly environment and now you’ve changed their world.”

    For some, the decision was made easier as league bowling participation continued dropping until open/recreational play became the predominant form of bowling. Yet because a vocal league base remained, some proprietors still were reluctant to change.

    “Proprietors are astute business people so imagine if they think 40-50 percent of their business is at risk because of the change,” Burger said. “It’s not because of the change but the fear of the change. They depend on that income. It’s a gap between what is guaranteed and new business.

    “For the proprietor, when a smoking ban is enacted it takes a long time to understand what it means to them. There’s a gap they have to fill. It takes time and money to get new customers.”

    Burger said the dilemma only applies to existing centers as he knows of no facility being built today that allows smoking.

    Before California enacted its statewide ban, proprietors like Ted Hoffman of Earl Anthony’s Dublin Bowl had to deal with sporadic city laws. While Dublin enacted some restrictions, some neighboring cities didn’t.

    “It was an unfair playing field,” Hoffman recalled. “We lost about 35 bowlers, customers who couldn’t smoke while relaxing.

    “The best thing was when we went statewide. It made it the same for everyone and brought in more families and more kids into the center.”

    Centers in New York State went through similar challenges in 2003 when smoke-free legislation went into effect. Some, like Frank Wilkinson, proprietor of Rab’s Country Lanes in Staten Island, embraced the change.

    “It probably was one of the best things that happened,” Wilkinson said. “I remember walking into the center on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night you couldn’t even see the front desk. There was a cloud of smoke and a smell of cigarettes.

    “We ended up with a clean center. The ceiling tiles improved tremendously from dark yellow to bright white. The lockers were yellow and ugly. When we pulled up the carpet there was quite a stench.”

    Before the laws, Rab’s had non-smoking times and smoke eaters which Wilkinson said didn’t do much to help. The center initially lost bar business to centers in nearby New Jersey which didn’t go non-smoking until 2006.

    “People started to think about the high gas and bridge toll costs and began coming back,” Wilkinson said. “The smoking ban did hurt our bar business which we’ve slowly brought back. You get used to it.

    “What we started to see was more families. I’m not saying we didn’t have them before but a lot of new families and people who wouldn’t bring their kids before because they didn’t want them around smoking.”

    Similar happenings occurred in Illinois which started its statewide, workplace smoking ban in 2008. With 20-25 percent of its customers smoking, Illinois Bowling Proprietors’ Association Executive Director Bill Duff said there was an initial large drop in lounge sales.

    “While the overall bar business still hasn’t gone back to what it was before, the centers have been pleasantly surprised with all the new customers coming in,” Duff said. “There’s more casual bowlers and families who had stayed away from the smoking environment.

    “If we had to do it again, the owners overall wouldn’t have been against it.”

    Kansas enacted its statewide ban in 2010 much to the delight of proprietors like Darren Needham of The Alley in Wichita.

    “Our open play customers appreciated it immediately,” said Needham, whose center previously was non-smoking on weekends. “If we had complaints they were from the older league bowlers.

    “We didn’t lose any bowlers. There was some grumbling but nobody quit bowling.”

    In Missouri, smoking bans are a local decision. St. Louis enacted one in January with exemptions for establishments that don’t have at least 25 percent of their revenues come from food sales. Greater St. Louis Bowling Proprietors’ Association Executive Director Gary Voss said 11 of the 18 centers in St. Louis County applied for and received initial exemptions.

    “The problem we have is three centers around me allow smoke,” said Voss, who owns West County Lanes in Ellsville. “We have all kinds of ordinances. The only ones who win are the lawyers.”

    Voss began voluntarily limiting smoking to his bar area in 1988 so he’s had few problems with the broader ban.

    “I can’t see anyone who smokes a pack of cigarettes who will quit the game,” he said. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to our business. Yes, some centers have lost some business for awhile but they get it back with new business.”

    Among the centers that secured an exception is Show Me Lanes, a 24-lane establishment with a strong league base that co-owner Nora Hoechstenbach estimates includes about 50 percent smokers. To comply with the new laws, she spent $5,000 to install doors to close off the bar and keep all her customers happy.

    Unfortunately, the law bans anyone under age 21 from entering the bar and her young adult customers, those age 18-21, have gone elsewhere.

    “We’ve lost about 10 percent of our business in the first six weeks,” she said. “We have centers five or six miles away in Jefferson County that allow smoking. All we want is a level playing field.”

    Because St. Louis County rules seem to change daily, Hoechstenbach concentrates on complying with current laws and will worry about potential bigger bans later.

    And she knows those bigger bans will come. Whether it’s one, five or 10 years away, every state eventually will have a smoking ban. Will proprietors choose to fight or work to obtain the eventual growth in their business most have experienced?

    Proprietors Rob Caputa and Neal Gehring of Sunrise Lanes in Casper, Wyo., chose the latter. As of May 1, they voluntarily went non-smoking knowing full well their smoking customers can bowl elsewhere in the city.

    “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who say they don’t bowl because of the smoke,” Caputa told Joshua Wolfson of the Star-Tribune. “Our children are our future, and we don’t want to expose them to this atmosphere. I think parents realize that and will bring their kids up here.”

    History is on Caputa and Gehring’s side. When their restaurant next door went non-smoking in 2009, sales initially dropped by nearly a third. By the end of the year, new customers helped push business up 35 percent.

    “It’s difficult for proprietors to deal with it,” Burger said. “Ultimately, I think proprietors who fight this may benefit in the short term but hurt themselves in the long term.”

    Ultimately, it’s a decision proprietors must make for themselves.

    NOTE: The Bowling Examiner originally wrote this article for International Bowling Industry magazine.