The midmorning breakfast talk in the smoking section of Rustler’s Roost on Friday revolved around pickups and weather.
Mostly older men occupied a handful of stools and tables. A curl of smoke rose from a cigarette at the counter.
Then, just as an old man toting an oxygen tank paid to leave, a dozen teenagers arrived.
Then a dozen more.
“Smoking, please,” they told the hostess.
“Are you going to order?” she asked warily.
“Yes,” they said.
Seated, they unveiled their T-shirts: “It’s just not cool, don’t smoke,” read the back.
“The Great American Smoke Scream,” read the front.
Thus began a sit-down protest for members of Idaho Drug-Free Youth, who for a short time turned the Sherman Avenue eatery into a smokeless restaurant.
One purpose for the sit-in was to push the message of the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout day. The official Smokeout actually was Thursday, but students had Friday off from school because of parent-teacher conferences.
The other purpose of the sit-in was to give customers and restaurant workers an idea of what a smoke-free restaurant is like, said Amy Bartoo, IDFY director.
Customer David Wells found it oppressive. He grabbed a seat at the end of the long counter and brooded over his coffee.
“It’s wrong, 100 percent,” Wells said. “Everyone has a right to their opinion, but it’s not right to stand on someone else by doing it. … “If I was the owner, I’d kick them out.”
Students never quite filled the entire smoking section of the restaurant, but at one point only two smokers occupied the area, and they weren’t smoking.
The students clogged up all of the tables for a short time, forcing at least one party to wait. That pleased Bartoo.
“We’re trying to keep it smoke-free for two hours,” she said.
Alaskans Dick Ward and Larry Costella, nonsmokers passing through town, sat at the counter not realizing it was a smoking section.
“We just wandered in and sat down,” Ward said.
Bartoo brought the sit-in idea back from a conference she attended in Seattle, where she was advised not to tell the restaurant owner of the protest plans. But she did out of respect for owner Woody McEver, she said.
McEver, however, mistakenly thought they were coming Thursday, not Friday.
“The crew was a little frazzled,” he said. McEver said he didn’t mind the students using his restaurant, but he made sure Bartoo understood it didn’t imply he’d make any changes.
“I’m a believer in choice,” McEver said. “We have people wait for smoking (seating) just as much as they wait for nonsmoking.”
Nonsmokers have at least a half dozen smoke-free restaurants in Coeur d’Alene now.
The Chuck Wagon is one.
When the restaurant opened three years ago, the building’s owner was adamant it would be a nonsmoking establishment.
“We were terrified. We started with just the money in the till,” said head cook Terry Brown. “In all reality, it has gained us so much business. I couldn’t fathom it.”
Some customers have complained, and others have turned around and walked out because of the ban. But the restaurant has gained other customers who otherwise might leave if they walked through the door into a cloud of smoke, Brown said.
“I smoke, but I don’t like smoke in my face when I’m eating,” Brown said. “The bottom line is, secondhand smoke isn’t good for you.”
Monique Smith, 16, is one customer who appreciates a smoke-free environment. She came to the sit-in because she likes to eat at Rustler’s Roost anyway.
“When you come into a restaurant, you expect to relax and not have to cough on smoke,” she said.
A few tables away, basketball player Brandon Bemis, 16, and his buddies were all wolfing down giant cinnamon rolls with butter and frosting.
Consuming all those calories is a different health issue from smoking, Bemis said.
“We won’t eat these every day,” he said. And, “we’ll work it off in two minutes at basketball practice.”
Smoker Ryan Hippenstiel, 18, pondered the sit-in from a nearby table. By coincidence, he’d chosen this restaurant for breakfast and this day to quit smoking.
The statement the students were making wouldn’t sway many smokers, he said. To him, smoking is a matter of personal choice - and willpower.
“If I get through today,” he said, “I think I can quit.”
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