News: Butting Out at Sitwell's

Clifton coffeehouse cites cultural change, bans smoking

Matt Borgerding

Lisa Storie, the owner, says the smoking ban has been well received.

It's a weekday afternoon, and Jazz and voices and sun are competing for space inside Sitwell's Coffee House on Ludlow Avenue in Clifton.

Haven't been there in a while? But for the long counter and the familiar faces of staff, you might not recognize it; the walls are a sunny yellow, and the old cloth partitions that separated the front of the coffee shop from the back are gone.

The haze of cigarette smoke that wafted from the hands of slouching and flirting and gesturing patrons is gone, too. In its place, two young women drink coffee with a stroller parked next to their table. A student sitting alone has a late breakfast, and another works on his laptop. People are eating in here.

Changing perceptions
Sitwell's, a Clifton fixture for more than a decade, has always worn a certain scruffy bohemianism on its sleeve in the spirit of turban-sporting poetess Edith Sitwell, for whom the business is named. While owner Lisa Storie's decision to make her establishment smoke-free on New Year's Day might seem incongruous, it's in keeping with a changing culture that's pushing smokers outside.

Storie conducted an informal telephone survey before making up her mind, calling residents in Sitwell's ZIP code and asking what they'd prefer.

"My biggest problem with making the decision, ultimately, was that I didn't want to exclude people," she says. "But at the same time, there seemed to be societal changes that were really starting to take hold."

The response from the survey was overwhelmingly in favor of a smoke-free space, Storie says.

Changes in when and where it's OK to smoke are reflected in a statewide smoke-free workplace ballot initiative that could go before voters in November. Toledo, Bowling Green and Columbus have banned smoking in businesses. After a student vote, UC's campus went entirely smoke-free this past year.

Cincinnati City Council rejected a ban on smoking but passed an ordinance requiring restaurants to offer non-smoking sections (see All the News That Fits, issue of April 20-26, 2005).

One in four Ohioans smokes, but it's clear that changes like these have left their mark.

"Though making the decision to quit using tobacco is always a personal one, the perception of tobacco use as acceptable has undergone a dramatic change in Ohio over the past five years," says Beth Schieber, spokeswoman for the Ohio Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Foundation (TUPCF).

Storie says her decision is about more than health; it's also part business and part politics.

"It's a kinder, gentler place now," she says. "It's even more enjoyable, I think, and I'm selling a lot more of the fancy alcohol coffee drinks, and I'm able to accommodate the Esquire Theatre crowd. There would be a group of four people who would stick their heads in, and one of them would object to smoke, and we'd see all four go someplace else."

At the same time, she notes, an environment that encourages young people to smoke is at odds with her personal ethos.

"I was really against having the young people smoking in here," she says. "When I grew up in the '70s, it was part of our ecological stance not to smoke and to be adamantly non-smoking and to flush our friends' cigarettes down the toilet and stuff."

In come the moms
What Sitwell's might lose in hipster cache, it's more than making up for in business, Storie says. She notes that in addition to an expanded clientele — including a study group of Clifton moms, no less — she's been approached by artists and musicians eager to show or perform their work in the revamped space.

Storie says she hasn't weathered the snarky comments and firestorm of complaints one might expect. Her only negative feedback? A lone e-mail and an "F you, Edith" scrawled on a no-smoking notice.

While Storie speaks, a sleepy-eyed student with food in his beard shuffles up to the table.

"I just want to say thank you for what you're doing," he says, displaying an inhaler he'd dug from his windbreaker. "I used to really struggle back when I first started coming in here, but it's a lot better now."

About 15 servers work at Sitwell's, and all but three of them smoke, though several say they're trying to quit. Ioanna Paraskevopoulos, a member of the Sitwell's staff since 2000 and a smoker, says the change is welcome.

"It's cleaner, and the customers and the employees all seem to be in a much better mood," she says. "It's also much easier to clean up at night."

Paraskevopoulos says, however, she misses many of the teenage regulars who'd spend all afternoon smoking and stretching the limit of the shop's "bottomless coffee."

Four teenagers, all smokers under 18, sit down as Paraskevopoulos heads back to the kitchen. Though the youngest in the group is 15, they explain that they've been coming to Sitwell's to smoke and drink coffee for "a couple of years."

"I don't know one person who smokes that doesn't smoke and drink coffee," says a black-fingernailed patron, 17, as he waits for his café mocha. "That's the reason that I drink coffee, is to smoke cigarettes at the same time."

Hard-core smokers might choose to meander over to Highland Coffee House in Corryville, which still permits smoking, but Storie is confident of customer support and feels she's made the right choice. As she gets ready to head back to the kitchen, the old Sitwell's and the new version come in the door together — a heavily pierced hipster mom sits down with her sunny-haired daughter.

Storie says she doesn't want to lose her smoking patrons and promises she's buying them a bench outside.

"This (change in policy) is going to be my gift to the community, and nobody's going to tell me if I can do it or not," she says. "I'm going to do it myself, and I'm going to take the leap of faith and hope that the community supports me." ©