Back when people could smoke freely in St. Louis bars, Lance Lindner was doing a good business. A retired cop, he opened Lindner's Pub (2925 Mt. Pleasant Street) five years ago in the corner space that used to be Ferguson's, deep in south city — and attracted a group of low-key regulars who enjoyed a drink and smoke, sometimes at 6 a.m.
But then came the smoking ban. It went into effect as 2016 dawned, and after a few months' grace period, the city began enforcing it.
That ban, Lindner says, is killing his business — and he's not going to take it anymore.
"It's a bullshit law," he says. "And you can quote-unquote me on this: If clientele walk in my bar and are willing to spend money, I will let them smoke in here." Asked if he's worried about getting cited by the city, he says, "It's a $100 fine for allowing smoking. Well, that's a $100 tax write-off. I'll write you a $1,200 check for the whole year. Just leave me alone."
Lindner says the ban is literally killing his business, and he has the ledger to prove it. He got through the summer just fine; people don't mind stepping outside when the weather's nice. But then came the fall, and then winter. It became clear to him what he had to do. He's about two miles from St. Louis County, two miles from River City Casino. In both places, smoking is allowed. Why would anyone drink at Lindner's?
PHOTO BY SARAH FENSKE
Lindner's cigarette machine has a permit.
For some drinkers, it's become something of an open secret which bars are quietly flouting the ban. And Lindner tried to lay low. But then, in December, he got a citation. He admitted to the city inspector he'd been smoking in the bar — it was empty, he says, and he was the only one there — but she told him it was illegal to so much as have his pack of cigarettes out on the bar. That got his back up; as he pointed out to her, the cigarette vending machine in his bar has a permit from the city.
It was incredibly frustrating. "It's a bar," he says. "I'm 54 years old, and as long as I can remember, you always smoked in a bar. If you don't like it, you go to a bar where there isn't smoking." (A city health department spokesman did not return our call seeking comment yesterday afternoon.)
He tried. He toed the line all through January. But his business died. On some days, literally no one came by for a single drink.
"Out of 31 days, I had eighteen days with no money," he says, pointing at his hand-written ledger. "Super Bowl Sunday, I made $210." Back when people could smoke? $1,200, easy.
And so, recently, he began allowing smoking again, and he doesn't care who knows it. Already he's made more in February than he made in all of December.
He says he tried to find a way to be legal. Everything anyone suggested, he did: He tried to convert to a private club, but the city said no. He tried to go the heated tent route, but ultimately Building & Zoning told him no because he's on a corner. He just doesn't see any other option.
"I feel like I'm doing something wrong, but in another way, I feel like I'm doing something right," he says. "I have to pay my bills, I have to pay my taxes. That's the way it has to be."
Lindner's alderman, Ken Ortmann, is sympathetic. Ortmann's wife and daughter own the Cat's Meow in Soulard, another classic St. Louis dive that's been hit hard by the new rules. (Ortmann was one of the only aldermen to vocally oppose the ban.)
He says he wouldn't advise Lindner to go around telling the media he's defying City Hall — but he understands how he could get there. "People don't want to walk outside every time they have a cigarette," he says. "People told me when the ban came down that now they'd come by and drink at our bar, that they'd make up for it. It hasn't made up for what we lost."
A legal challenge mounted to the ban mounted by a group of bar owners is still pending in appellate court. Lindner says he's holding out some hope for that.
Other bar owners aren't so sure.
"My opinion?" says Ortmann. "We're screwed."
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