With its tiny 2.2 square miles, and surrounded by enormous competitive options from nearby counties, the City of Falls Church would be threatening its restaurant establishments with a significant loss of business if a cigarette ban were imposed.
That was the strong sentiment expressed by two prominent restaurant and bar owners in the City Tuesday, commenting to city officials present at a meeting of the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.
Colm Dillon, owner of Ireland’s Four Provinces, and Adam Roth, owner of Argia’s Restaurant, both said that they’ve spent years building up a loyal clientele and that many of them, especially at the bar, happen to smoke. Both restaurants voluntarily ban smoking in their dining areas.
“I’d have no problem whatsoever if the Commonwealth of Virginia, as a whole, banned smoking,” Roth told Falls Church Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester and the Chamber board members at the meeting. “But doing it just in Falls Church will only drive business way.”
The Falls Church City Council devoted a considerable part of its work session last week to kick around ideas of a ban, though it took no formal action. The matter came up because one owner of a new restaurant that opened in town suggested it. The owner voluntarily bans smoking in his place until 9 p.m. to encourage family dining earlier in the evening, and he appealed to the mayor for a uniform ban so that his policy would not disadvantage him.
Roth explained that he’s built his small restaurant business for the last seven and a half years in Falls Church to include a clientele that stays primarily at the long bar in a separate area of his establishment. There, they come not only to drink and relax, but often eat their meals at the bar.
Many of these loyal customers smoke, he explained. If suddenly cut off they’d leave for another place nearby.
“This is different for someone just coming to Falls Church to open a new business,” he said. “They’re trying to build a different customer base by limiting smoking. That is an entirely different situation from those of us who have been established in the City.”
“But Falls Church is not like Manhattan or even the District,” Roth went on. “There, taking the trouble to drive all the way out to where smoking is allowed is too much trouble for patrons. They simply adapt by going outside to have a smoke. But in Falls Church, alternatives are less than a mile away.”
Both Roth and Dillon emphasized that not only they, but the City would also be the losers. The City will lose the revenue from meal and sales taxes, they said.
Roth noted that the ban in the District of Columbia has affected business there, still. Business is up 25% in restaurants in Arlington since the ban went into effect across the Potomac last January 1, he said.
In the case of Cork County, Ireland, Dillon said, “It’s my home and was the first county in the country to ban smoking. There were 16 bars in one town, and six wound up shutting down.”
“Nothing would be a greater incentive for someone to open a restaurant in the new mixed-use project only 15 feet outside the Falls Church city limits,” quipped one Chamber board member, “Than to catch all those customers moving north away from the smoking ban to find an alternative.”
“I just don’t understand why the City of Falls Church wants to get on the cutting edge of this,” Dillon said. “If the state bans it, then it’s a level playing field. But this would put us at a relative disadvantage. I don’t know why our own City Hall would want to do that to us.”
Mester confirmed that no specific action to ban smoking is on the City Council’s plate yet.