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Equipment: Combating the smoking ban with outdoor dining

Thursday 27th April 2006 00:00
Following Parliament's decision in February that smoking should be banned in enclosed public spaces, from next summer restaurants and pubs in England will have to tell customers to go outside if they want to smoke. Faced with the prospect of smokers walking away and not returning, the industry is investing in improved outdoor facilities.

The regulations are expected to appear any day now. One crucial definition awaited is the distinction between areas which must be smoke-free and those where it will be allowed. In principle, smoking will not be allowed in "enclosed" public spaces, and one understanding of "enclosed" is having two or more walls and 50% or more of the roof covered.

Depending on location, customers who want to smoke may have to retire either into a semi-sheltered part of the garden or to the pavement outside. Pubs without any private outdoor space may be able to do little more than erect awnings, now often fitted with quartz radiant heaters, out front. This solves the comfort issue, but as Eddie Passey, operations director of Interpub, points out, people who leave the bar for a smoke will often take their drinks with them, and local authorities don't look kindly on people drinking on the pavement, especially where seating is not provided. Many city pubs do not have space for seating outside.

JD Wetherspoon, which has 650 pubs across the UK, has declared 49 of them non-smoking ahead of the change in the law. Another 38 in Scotland have joined that number, as Scotland brought in the ban ahead of England and Wales.

Wetherspoon's pubs provide some space outside, subject to planning constraints and having the space available. Canopies and heaters are used to make this comfortable. Its initial experience following the change of policy was that food sales went up while drink sales fell. Overall, takings were down an average of 7%.

The company has been spending about £50,000 on each of its pubs in England, going beyond the changes made in Scotland, which were specifically to provide shelter outside where customers could smoke. The pubs in England are also getting a kitchen upgrade and refurbishment of the public areas.

In light of the impending smoking ban, and with the growing popularity of outdoor dining, the Deckers Restaurant Group commissioned Andy Thornton to make a bespoke canopy for the Plough & Flail restaurant in Mobberley, Cheshire. The structure has created 60sq m of additional sheltered seating for year-round use.

The Union Pub Company (UPC), a division of Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, is using six of its pubs in Burton on Trent, Staffordshire, to test a range of ideas that could help to retain and attract customers. It is investing in pergolas, awnings, timber gazebos and giant umbrellas fitted with heaters and lighting.

Melanie Smith, leaseholder of the Gate Inn, Swadlincote, five miles from the centre of Burton, has had two parasols with integral heating and lighting installed in her garden. They are outside French windows which open up from the 40-seat restaurant, providing an extra 25 seats, mostly under cover.

Setting up the parasols, lights and heaters takes 15 minutes at the beginning of the session. The parasols are raised by winding a geared handle - not a heavy job - and lights are permanently in place inside. The heaters are quickly bolted into place and plugged into the integral cables. "The smoking ban is happening, we can't change that," says Smith. "But if we look at the positive side, this is a good way of creating new outside-dining business for the pub."

Schemes like this will be rolled out to the company's estate of 1,800 pubs, helping them to adapt to the smoking ban. This will be supported with a training and information DVD for licensees. The company reckons that if just one extra customer buys a meal and a few drinks each week, this would be enough to justify the minimum investment of about £5,000. UPC expects to spend about £7,000 per pub.

The Foxton Locks Inn, near Market Harborough, Leicestershire, is the first Waterside Pubs Partnership development by British Waterways and Scottish & Newcastle. Completed in May 2005, it has a terraced area furnished with seating for up to 48 people at 12 tables set beneath giant umbrellas printed with the pub's logo. The umbrellas provide protection from sun or rain and also have heating and lighting through an integrated system. They can have the addition of roll-up side sheets as necessary. This area now regularly attracts more customers than the indoor section of the restaurant.

After seeing the Foxton Locks Inn project completed, Scottish & Newcastle commissioned Shropshire firm Shading by Design, which provided the design, supply and installation, to survey more than 50 of its pubs to identify viability for an outdoor solution to the smoking ban.

"The real challenge," explains Shading by Design director Tony Reynolds, "is to provide a comfortable place for people to go and enjoy themselves in all weathers."

The company has several such projects on the go, including the creation of a small decked area with screens, umbrellas and furniture at the Golden Fleece in Louth, Lincolnshire, and the Duke of Cambridge in Nottingham, where it is proposed to build a raised deck of 100sq m with two large umbrellas, patio screens, planting and furniture.

Robert Cook, chief executive of Malmaison Hotels and Hotel du Vin, is fully supportive of the smoking ban, but he also intends to protect people's right to enjoy a smoke after dinner.

He has commissioned his internal design team to devise a "cigar shack". He explains: "It's a bit like a log cabin, with a sliding roof, and it will be furnished with lots of oak, rugs and comfy seats. It would fit in the garden of a Hotel du Vin. After dinner you can sit by the fire, listen to Cuban music and smoke a cigar." He expects the cigar shacks to cost between £10,000 and £12,000 a time.

Cook insists this is not about protecting revenue; more about protecting the Hotel du Vin guest experience - but the move will not do any harm to the £280,000 annual revenue the group receives from sales of Havana cigars.

Applying for permission
Some extensions require planning permission. It is impossible to predict which developments will or will not require permission, so you should call your local authority's planning department and ask for guidance at an early stage. One source suggests allowing a 10-week lead time to allow for the planning process.

Permission for customers to drink outside might be included in the premises licence issued under the new licensing regime brought in last year. For the first time, under the new legislation, the licensed drinking area has to be identified, and in some cases - depending on the local authority - the outdoor drinking area might be licensed only until a certain time, perhaps 9pm. If this is the case with your licence, you will need to discuss with the licensing department what happens at that point: does smoking have to stop, or will smokers be allowed to congregate on the pavement? Some inner-city authorities actively discourage drinking on pavements, especially where they are narrow.

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