Going smoke-free was easy, logical choice for restaurateurs

When Deb and Don Wermter opened the Road House Restaurant in Hawthorne this July, they decided to go smoke-free. That was a difficult choice in northwestern Wisconsin, where most restaurants allow smoking. But for the couple, it was a personal ch...

When Deb and Don Wermter opened the Road House Restaurant in Hawthorne this July, they decided to go smoke-free.

That was a difficult choice in northwestern Wisconsin, where most restaurants allow smoking. But for the couple, it was a personal choice, Deb Wermter said.

They have been business owners in Douglas County for the past 30 years. For 20, the couple sold firewood and ran Wermter's Bar in South Range while they raised four children.

They opened the Road House gas station at the corner of County Road B and Highway 53 thirteen years ago followed by the Road House Bar 10 years ago.

"My husband's dream always was to have a restaurant," she said.


That dream has come true, although the process was, at times, frustrating. The Wermters had no prior experience in the food business.

One decision wasn't hard: No smoking would be allowed at the Road House Restaurant.

Thirty years of working in second-hand smoke at his bars has left Don Wermter with throat and lung damage, Deb Wermter said.

He can tell when someone's a smoker just from sitting next to them. His throat is that sensitive. When he goes into the Road House Bar to conduct business, Don Wermter has to wear a painter's mask to protect himself from the smoke.

He has chronic bronchitis and throat damage that needs to be controlled by medication. Deb Wermter, who also has worked in the couple's bars through the years, so far has not suffered ill second-hand smoke effects.

Prohibition inevitable

"Originally, we decided smoke-free is what we were going with," she said. "That's how it's going to go anyway ... Why clean out all the smoke in a year or two when it changes to no smoking?"

The Wermters believe Wisconsin will follow its neighbors Minnesota and Illinois in passing a statewide smoking ban. Minnesota's ban went into effect Monday, while the Illinois ban is set to begin in January.


Wisconsin's state senators are working on their own statewide smoking ban -- the Breathe Free Wisconsin Act. If adopted, it will ban smoking in all public places including public buildings, restaurants, bars and taverns, according to the Smoke Free Wisconsin Web site. Smoke Free Wisconsin is an organization that promotes tobacco control policies to combat second-hand smoke.

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association supports the act. The entire restaurant industry has been gravitating that direction because it's what customers want, said Pete Hanson, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. Restaurant owners also support the statewide measure for the health of their employees and to reduce cleaning costs, but the big motivation is economic, he said. The vast majority of association members want an even playing field, which doesn't happen when local government's create their own ordinances. Local smoking bans create an unfair competitive environment because customers can smoke at one location but not at another place down the street, he said.

The association is in support of the Breathe Free Wisconsin because it has no exceptions for bars or bar-areas in restaurants.

Movement spreading

Thirty-three communities across Wisconsin have enacted local smoke-free air ordinances. The closest community with a smoke-free ordinance is Ashland, according to the Smoke Free Wisconsin Web site.

Several restaurants in Wisconsin have smoke-free policies, and many have had positive experiences being smoke-free. Some restaurants have seen an increase in customers after a smoking ban, Hanson said.

Enacting a smoke-free policy has been troublesome for some restaurants in small northern Wisconsin communities. There isn't as much pressure for a ban in small towns where restaurants have more competition from taverns, he said.

The reaction to the Road House's smoke-free policy has been mixed but mostly positive, Deb Wermter said.


Only a few people have walked out after learning the restaurant is no smoking. About 95 percent of the customers have viewed the policy favorably, but most people who want to smoke just don't come in at all, she said.

Nights and weekends have seen good business, but mornings have been slow.

"A lot of workers are still stuck on smoking," she said.

Workers like to have a smoke with coffee during breakfast or during their lunch break, and the Road House doesn't offer that, she said.

Wermter admits that part of the problem is also that people don't know the restaurant is open for breakfast.

Even though the Wermters went smoke-free in the restaurant, Deb Wermter doesn't agree with a smoking ban in bars.

"That's an adult's choice to go into a bar," she said.

The Road House Restaurant offers American-style cuisine, and it's only a coincidence nothing on the menu is smoked, Wermter said.

Anna Kurth covers education. Call her at (715) 395-5019 or e-mail .

What To Read Next