A former haven for those who light up, Safehouse tries to survive the smoking ban

Shifting Cloud 

A former haven for those who light up, Safehouse tries to survive the smoking ban

When Aaron Triplett began his quest to create the perfect coffeehouse, two concepts came to mind: Disneyland and dive bar.

"It just seemed like the perfect sort of amalgamation of the two kind of disparate theories," said Triplett.

The twisted combo came to life in 1997, with Safehouse at 4024 E. Speedway Blvd. It quickly attracted a typical dive-bar crowd: bikers, college students and the occasional group of high school students.

"We're basically a nonalcoholic bar," said Triplett. Contributing to that quality are dark wooden tables--some bearing the deep etchings of patrons' graffiti--and extended hours: Customers can hang out until 2 a.m. A row of motorcycles usually stretches across the area out front. The neon "open" sign casts a red-blue glow over the pool table. A cartoonish group of painted-on eyeballs stare down from the loft balcony. There is even some sort of voodoo doll hanging inconspicuously above the entrance.

Beyond the intriguing décor, Safehouse's allure is due in part to its share of wacky stunts. Triplett and Shannon Stephens, the manager, said that one time, a couple requested permission to film their coital escapades on the pool table after hours. They agreed to it.

"We've had customers who have wanted to fulfill a bet--streak through the entire coffeehouse once, completely naked," said Stephens.

Safehouse was established on the concept of providing customers with a coffeehouse-turned-bar experience, so, of course, smoking was an integral part of the idea; the business even holds a retail tobacco license.

However, earlier this year, the cloud of smoke cleared--along with some of the customers, thanks to the state's new smoking ban.

The eclectic coffeehouse/smoke shop has faced city-imposed smoking restrictions in the past, including a city ordinance in 1999 limiting smoking in restaurants, and a Pima County ban in 2001. But Triplett said the restrictions never caused the business significant problems--because there was always a major loophole.

"There was never an enforcement agency, so you just kind of keep doing whatever you want to do," said Triplett.

Voters passed Proposition 201 in 2006, making the Smoke-Free Arizona Act law. It prohibits smoking in all businesses and places of employment. Among the exemptions are retail tobacco stores, if they are "physically separated and independently ventilated." The law went into effect in May 2007 and is enforced by the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Despite the ban, Safehouse continued to allow smoking inside, even though there is no barrier between the restaurant and retail-tobacco components of the business. They were forced to call it quits in January of this year, when a new regulation defined Safehouse as a restaurant.

According to the regulation, even if a business holds both a restaurant license and a tobacco retail license, the restaurant license takes priority if it brings in at least 51 percent of the revenue.

Don Herrington, bureau chief of epidemiology and disease control at the Arizona Department of Health Services, said he assumes any such business would see the majority of its revenues from the sale of food. Regardless of revenue, restaurants and tobacco shops must be physically separate and "cannot coexist," said Herrington.

Triplett declined to comment on what percentage of their business comes from tobacco sales.

Dane Oller, a Safehouse employee, has suspicions about the regulation. "One of our customers told us that the advisory was written specifically for us," said Oller.

So what has Triplett done to combat the new rule?

"We were working on it for a little while. I had two different lawyers who were working on it pretty hard with me, and it looked pretty positive, but in the beginning of March, we got burglarized worse than we've ever been burglarized, and then, in the beginning of April, we got a firebomb thrown through our back door, so we've been a little busy with other projects," said Triplett.

Newly painted blood-red walls and some different (and uncharacteristically clean) furniture attest to their work after the Molotov-cocktail incident in April.

Amidst crime problems and legal action, Triplett decided that structural change, in the form of added patios, was needed to protect the business from a decline in customers and profits. Though Smoke-Free Arizona prohibits smoking indoors, it is allowed on patios that are 20 feet from the entrance.

"Our whole business went in the hole so badly after the smoke ban went into effect that we had no other choice: It was either that (the patios), or give it up," said Triplett.

The patios--overhanging metal structures above existing concrete decks in the front and rear of the building--were completed on July 1 and cost about $8,000, said Triplett.

"It's already made a difference ... for people being able to hang out and have a comfortable place," said Triplett. As an added bonus, the patios have cooling misters.

Though Safehouse has seen some customers leave, the switch to nonsmoking hasn't been a total negative.

"It's been weird. It was an environment change. I think that (smoking) really added to the dive-bar sense of things, and at the same time, I don't think it's been entirely a bad attitude change. I mean, we did lose something, but we gained a lot in it," said Stephens.

Triplett, Stephens and Oller agreed that while they may have lost some of their customers, new patrons have started frequenting the hangout, because they like the smoke-free environment.

"I think a lot of the positive change was that we got rid of a lot of the people who came in here just because you could smoke," said Oller. "... People who were 16, 17 years old (were) coming in here, hanging out and smoking, because Mom and Dad couldn't find out," said Oller.

He adds that while Safehouse doesn't sell tobacco to anyone underage--in fact, said Stephens, Safehouse is frequently targeted by sting operations, and the employees even ask regulars for identification--they couldn't kick out teen smokers because of discrimination laws.

Despite the absence of its once trademark smoky haze, Safehouse maintains its offbeat ambiance. It's just that now, the cloud has moved outdoors.

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