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Fewer gamblers play after smoke clears

15 August 2007

By Ed Koch, Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Brian Slipock felt the blood drain from his face in November when voters overwhelmingly adopted a tougher anti-smoking law for businesses that serve food.

Slipock, 38, owner of Jackson's Bar and Grill on the west side of town, recognized immediately the tough road that was ahead for him and other supper club owners.

Supper clubs are eateries that can sell liquor but where food is the primary business.

Unlike tavern owners , who have taken a number of roads to comply with - or get around - the tough new law, Slipock had no choice under his licensing category but to go smoke-free.

Voters, he says, "have put me at a serious competitive disadvantage."

Supper clubs cannot close their kitchens and offer customers menus to fast-food delivery restaurants as some taverns have done because 51 percent of supper clubs' incomes must be derived from food sales.

And because supper clubs cannot have stand-alone bars, they cannot do as three dozen local taverns have done and erect glass partitions to separate smoking-allowed bars from non smoking restaurants.

Slipock says he is in too deep with his investment to close Jackson's and, given the negative publicity generated by the smoking law, he does not think he can sell his place for what he thinks it is worth.

Left only with the option of complying with the law and trudging along, Slipock says he has lost most of his regular gamblers, 85 percent of whom he estimates are smokers, to nearby bars that have found ways, legally and illegally, to get around the law.

With everything he has on the line, including his house, Slipock says he probably will have to lay off more workers - he already has let two go and cut in half the hours of a third - and perhaps try to renegotiate his loan for the 2003 bar purchase.

Joe Wilcock, president of the Nevada Tavern Owners Association, of which Jackson's is a member, says Slipock's story is typical under the new law , which was intended to improve culinary workers' health.

"I'm more worried about the financial health of these places and their employees," said Wilcock, a Las Vegas resident of 37 years. "One waitress told me her tips are down 40 percent. Others are out of work."

The 308 members of his association have estimated that their overall revenue is down 15 percent to 40 percent since the smoking ban went into effect.

At least 75 member businesses have closed their restaurants and laid off kitchen employees to accommodate smokers.

Three and a half years ago, Slipock and his wife and parents invested $1 million to buy an old Timbers pub and turn it into an Andrew Jackson-themed business.

(Ironically, the nation's seventh president , who is featured on the $20 bill , was addicted to tobacco : "Now, Doctor, I can do anything you think proper, except give up coffee and tobacco " - Andrew Jackson.)

The liquor license that came with the place had the supper club designation, a category that was created in the late 1980s to allow eateries to serve alcohol even though they are located too close to schools, churches or other businesses that already have liquor licenses.

"I had always wanted to get into the bar and gaming business and this was a good opportunity at the time," said Slipock, who sold his three local mall food court eateries to invest in Jackson's. "Who could have seen this (new anti-smoking law) coming back then?"

Today there are 146 supper clubs licensed in Clark County and 56 in Las Vegas.

Although many supper clubs might be considered conventional restaurants - Applebee's, Chili's, Olive Garden, Outback Steak House and Red Lobster - many others, such as Jackson's, thrive on gaming revenue and serve food only so they can keep their liquor licenses.

Slipock says business for his 15 bar slot machines has been dropping like a rock since the anti-smoking law went into effect.

According to his books, Jackson's gaming drop was about the same in April as it was in April 2006. But by June, the take was down 25 percent from June 2006. Gaming revenue for early August was about half of what it was the same time last year.

Slipock, a non smoker, said he is complying with the anti-smoking law by posting no-smoking signs and not offering patrons ashtrays or matches. But, he acknowledges that when he is working behind the bar, "I will not jump across and rip a cigarette out of a customer's mouth."

Jackson's has been reported for at least three alleged violations of the anti-smoking law to the Southern Nevada Health District, the agency designated to enforce it. But follow-up investigations by health inspectors found no violations , and no citations were issued.

Slipock says to attract back some of his gamblers he has loosened the odds on some of his machines.

"We are walking the edge on survival versus not surviving," he said. "We'll do what we can to keep our people working and our business going."

Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.


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