Ten years ago, Minnesota’s bar scene was embroiled in a fierce political debate. It divided owners and regulars along lines of public health and personal freedom. Whether you sported a Wellstone bumper sticker or an elephant lapel pin, the side of the fence you stood on may have boiled down to one simple question: Got a light?
In 2004, prohibiting smoking in bars and restaurants became a touchy subject. That year Minneapolis, Bloomington, Golden Valley and Moorhead, Minn., passed anti-smoking ordinances, and the debate spread through other cities and counties. Many pub and club owners were freaking out, worried that their patrons would find another place to have a drink and a smoke.
However, Minneapolis restaurateur Kim Bartmann broke rank and publicly supported the ban after hearing concerns from her staff at Uptown’s Barbette and Bryant-Lake Bowl about secondhand smoke. “People left yelling and swearing voice mails on my answering machine,” recalled the eco-conscious owner. “But there were also a lot of people who were really excited about it.”
Three years later, the ban went statewide, easing some bar owners’ gripes that a patchwork of city and county ordinances was creating an uneven playing field. But were there unintended side effects to forcing Marlboro men and women outside? Any side effects that the surgeon general and local government officials failed to warn us about?
“The smoking ban led to a boom in the existence of patios – people making patios, upgrading patios, etc.” Bartmann said. “It ended up being better for everyone, not just smokers.”
Beats lung cancer.
The pre-ban Twin Cities wasn’t a total patio desert. Bars such as Tonic (now Stella’s Fish Cafe) and Brit’s Pub already had rooftop oases. But around the mid-aughts, more establishments started getting serious about al fresco options. “People were trying to mitigate the inside loss by making these elaborate patios, but now it’s just the accepted norm,” said Stephanie Shimp of Blue Plate Restaurant Co., which owns eight metro restaurants, including Highland Grill, Longfellow Grill and the Freehouse.
Partly spurred by the push toward smokeless barrooms, Pat Boemer turned the parking lot behind his Patrick McGovern’s Pub in St. Paul into a $2 million, 4,000-square-foot patio in 2005 — the same year the nearby Liffey added its second-level terrace. Over the years he’s continued reinvesting in his tricked-out courtyard, which includes a waterfall, two fireplaces, two bars and a $400,000 retractable roof.
Expansive outdoor hangouts were less common a decade ago, but now patio demand is “huge,” Boemer said. “I think it’s almost a necessity to have something, unless you want three or four months of slow business during the summer,” the 30-year industry vet said.
Over in northeast Minneapolis, Marty Neumann of Keegan’s Irish Pub agrees that outdoor seating is crucial for attracting summertime imbibers. But Neumann, who built Keegan’s patio two years after the statewide ban, doesn’t think there’s much connection between patio mania and the cigarette sanctions. “That was something to be competitive for those June, July and August times that are beautiful outside and most people are on their own decks, on the river, the lakes,” he said. “You have to — to be competitive — give people the option to be outside.”
Undoubtedly, sun-starved Minnesotans emerging from hibernation relish the opportunity to enjoy a cold one outside without risking frostbite. While Smack Shack’s Josh Thoma said the smoking ban somewhat fanned the patio flame — which now burns stronger than a Zippo — the desire to embrace good weather keeps them packed. That and a recurring “newness” factor.