December 11, 2009 at 3:49 pm EST | by Harley Dennett
Butts out in the cold as Va. gay bar goes smoke free

There was fresh air, fresh faces and perhaps not quite so many raspy-voiced karaoke songs at Freddie’s Beach Bar & Restaurant last week as Virginia went smoke free.

Business hasn’t declined since the Dec. 1 changeover, and some patrons even said they were enticed back or came for the first time as a result of the smoking ban.

“It’s much more pleasant inside,” said Tom, a Crystal City man who declined to give his last name. A smoker, he has a non-smoking partner. The pair shuffled back and forth between the warmer entrance patio and the cold of winter’s first snow outside.

“I support the ban,” he said. “I’ve only lived in Virginia for three years. Before that I lived in New York City. They had the ban. Before that, Boston. They had the ban. It’s an incentive to smoke less.”

D.C. and Maryland banned smoking in bars and restaurants in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Freddie’s was the last remaining gay bar in the metro area to allow smoking.

Not everyone at Freddie’s supports the ban. Ophelia Bottoms, Freddie’s Saturday night DJ and drag host reserved her anger for the Virginian government.

“It was forced on us,” she said. “I think it’s funny that we’re the tobacco state and you can’t smoke inside. I perform in the city and Maryland, this was the only place left to perform where you could still smoke.”

“Now it’s cold outside — really cold. When I’m not in drag it’s fine, but when it’s raining or snowing, it is not the best thing to go outside.”

On the first night of the ban, it rained, Bottoms said, so five people were forced to huddle in the doorway while people were trying to get into the venue.

Vince, a former Freddie’s employee who declined to provide his last name, said he enjoyed being able to smoke while he worked.

“I understand that non-smokers want to go somewhere that is smoke free, but as a smoker, we want somewhere that has a balcony or a patio with a roof,” he said. “I love Freddie’s, but I want to go somewhere that has a smoking area.”

Freddie Lutz, the establishment’s eponymous owner, said he’d have to check with the Health Department on what changes could be made to accommodate the displaced smokers.

“I have a lot of smoking clientele, and I’ve grown very fond of them over the years,” he said. “They’re not bad people, they just smoke. I really appreciate all of them and they’ve been loyal to me, faithful loyal customers.”

Returning that loyalty was “a work in progress” he said, beginning with small changes like moving ashtrays outside.

“There was a lot of that sort of talk [about a smoking deck] and the smokers were trying to think of ways we could get around it, we do the patio or something like that, but we really wanted to try this cold turkey.”

Virginia law would not permit Freddie’s former non-smoking patio to be converted to a smoking area as it is currently fitted, because of the flaps.

“If we do that, the flaps would have to be open. It could get cold. We could have heaters on, too, but that would be pretty costly,” Lutz said. It would also lose functionality as additional seating, he noted, due to the exposure.

Despite the complications, Lutz said he expected to see many new customers as a result of the changeover.

“I had a lot of people come to me and say, ‘We would go to your place or we’d go to your place more often but we just can’t stand the smoke.’ I think we’re going to get a lot of those people coming now, which is a great thing.”

Lutz said the smokers he talked to had accepted the change.

“Anyone would admit that it was an inevitability, it was going to happen. I don’t think we’re going to lose the smokers because where can they go? They can’t go to D.C.; they can’t go to Maryland.

“I’m an ex-smoker myself. I swore to myself I wouldn’t turn into one of those bitchy ex-smokers. I can relate and feel for the smokers and it’s unfortunate that it’s in the dead of winter. I know it’s difficult for them.”

Freddie’s manager Ray Martin confirmed that bar receipts were unchanged this week.

“For every customer that is maybe staying home and smoking now, more customers are coming out,” he said.

“Personally, I’m very pleased. My smoking has been cut down to a third of what it used to be. Every smoker out there really wishes they could quit.”

Customers who can’t stand to abandon either Freddie’s or their cigarettes could find hope in the bar owner’s plans to open another Freddie’s in another city, particularly in Florida.

“I’m down in Fort Lauderdale looking for a bar,” he said. “It is still smoking down here, interestingly enough. Freddie’s has been a smoking bar all this time so it wouldn’t bother me.

“I was actually surprised — pleasantly surprised — that Virginia did this. I thought they’d be the absolute last because they’re such a tobacco state, so now if we could just get them to legalize gay marriage, we’d be set.”

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