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Fuming on Tobacco Road
Beverley Flynn says she has eaten her last meal at her favorite Waffle House in Winston-Salem, N.C.
No longer can she smoke her Winston Lights 100 after the restaurant banned cigarettes in the hometown of their maker, Reynolds American Inc.
“I’m old enough to be stubborn,” said Ms. Flynn, 63, who refuses to step out for a puff under Waffle House’s brown-and-yellow-striped awning. “I won’t go anywhere I can’t smoke.”
Tobacco Road in Central North Carolina, where the four biggest U.S. tobacco companies, including Philip Morris USA, crank out more than 200 billion cigarettes a year, is getting its first smoke-free Waffle House restaurants.
This week, franchisee Gary Fly began a permanent smoking ban in four of his 37 eateries to give nonsmokers an alternative.
Although restaurant smoking bans have passed legislatures and city councils from New York to Washington state, none exists in Winston-Salem.
Mr. Fly’s no-puff rule snuffs out what had become a tradition at his restaurants — lighting up after a $9.95 T-bone steak and onion-smothered hash browns.
Mr. Fly, owner of Freeway Foods of Greensboro Inc., has watched sales drop — and customers curse out his waitresses — in the five outlets where he has tested the ban since Oct. 31.
“We’re not trying to be crusaders,” said Mr. Fly, 40, whose friends told him they stopped eating at Waffle House because they left smelling of smoke. “We’re trying to appeal to as many people as we can.”
Eleven states ban smoking in restaurants, bars and other workplaces. A bill to restrict smoking in some restaurants died last year in North Carolina’s legislature, leaving Mr. Fly to act on his own.
The Winston-Salem Waffle House is representative of the closely held Norcross, Ga., chain of 1,497 restaurants. It’s on a highway frequented by interstate travelers and serves eggs and grits as well as waffles 24 hours a day. A sign over the toaster tells customers that they must wear a shirt and shoes to be served.
“I get complaints all the time,” said Lakreshia Coplen, 20, a Waffle House waitress tending the counter one Saturday night during the test ban. “They can’t believe they can’t smoke here in the tobacco capital.”
Winston-Salem has been home to Reynolds American’s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. since 1875, when Richard Joshua Reynolds started making chewing tobacco. The maker of Camel and Kool cigarettes ranks second in sales behind Philip Morris USA.
Another Southern cultural icon started when Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner opened their first Waffle House outside Atlanta in 1955.
The chain now spans 25 states, mostly in the Southeast, although 11 are in Maryland, 11 in Pennsylvania and two in Delaware. It has served almost 500 million waffles since its founding, or one every three seconds, Waffle House spokesman Pat Warner said.
Sales have slowed since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Mr. Fly, who bought his restaurants in 2000. Trying to attract more families, he decided last year to test the smoking ban in a state where 23 percent of adults smoke, two percentage points higher than the U.S. average.
North Carolina farmers produce more tobacco than any other U.S. state.
“It’s courageous for Waffle House,” said J. Nelson-Weaver, director of the Infant Mortality Reduction Coalition in Forsyth County, where Winston-Salem is located. She said she will add it to her group’s online list of smoke-free restaurants.
Mr. Fly is trying to minimize the loss of smokers by going smoke-free in restaurants within a few miles of other Waffle Houses where smoking is allowed.
“We lost some business, but we will get families and people who don’t smoke as new customers,” he said.
The smoking ban applies to employees, said district manager Tangela Lovelace, a smoker. She estimates 20 of the restaurant’s 25 workers smoke, meaning they must go outside to light up.
“They’ve been forewarned that if I catch them smoking they’ll be fired,” said Ms. Lovelace, 31. “We can’t let employees do what our customers can’t.”
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