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Smoking in Chicago with Mike Ditka

Feb 17, 2003 | By Ken Shouler
Smoking in Chicago with Mike Ditka

Posted February 17, 2003, 5 p.m. e.s.t.

After several incomplete passes around the country, Cigar Aficionado finally caught up with Mike Ditka. He spoke with correspondent Kenneth Shouler from Ditka's Restaurant in Naples, Florida -- "Ditka's South," if you will -- where he answered our questions on the proposed ban on smoking in public places in Chicago. We also chatted about freedom of choice in America -- and those seeking to take it away -- and the City of Broad Shoulders, the land of Grabowskis.

Ken Shouler: Is Mike Ditka's Restaurant in Chicago still open to cigar smokers now?

Ditka: Yes.

KS: So there's no imminent change?

Ditka: There might not be any change anywhere in the city until the antismoking bill is passed by the City Council. That's what we're trying to stop now. There are a number of people on the City Council who are against the bill -- and I think they oppose it for the right reasons -- and a number who are for it. The thing is, I don't think they realize the amount of revenue the city will lose, not only through restaurants but also through conventions. It's the same for the state of Florida. Las Vegas will end up with every convention there is. And if that's the way it's going to be, that's the way it's going to be.

KS: Do you know when these changes might occur in Chicago? Is it a matter of weeks or months?

Ditka: I don't think they are going to occur; I really don't. I think the backlash is a lot stronger than I and others thought it would be. There is a choice you have to make: if you go into a restaurant and don't want to smoke, then don't smoke. You don't want to go into a restaurant where there is smoking? Then you don't have to go into that restaurant. Every restaurant has a nonsmoking area. Every restaurant that has smoking has a smoke-eater to drive the smoke out. You don't smell the smoke. You don't even see it.

KS: Are there any other issues that started this smoking opposition in Chicago?

Ditka: Another thing is that you have a lot of people screaming about secondhand smoke. There's no proof. One doctor says you have to be in a smoke-filled room 24 hours a day for 40 years to be in danger. It doesn't make any sense what they are trying to do. But you have a bunch of liberals and do-gooders in there. They don't mind freedom of choice, as long as the choice matches theirs! If it doesn't match theirs, they oppose everything and after a while you just get tired of it. Nobody forces you to come to a place where there is smoking.

KS: So it just comes down to a matter of personal choice?

Ditka: Exactly. It's America. It's the freedom you have.

KS: Did these smoking opponents in Chicago seem to have gained encouragement from the bans in New York and Los Angeles?

Ditka: I'm sure they did; I don't think there is any question about it. But why buckle in to them? The restaurants are totally against it. The workers in the restaurants are against it, because that is their livelihood. They want to work in that environment.

KS: Right. How many employees do you have?

Ditka: I can't tell you offhand. We have about 100 -- if not, darned near 100.

KS: Your Chicago restaurant (adjacent to the Tremont Hotel) has a smoking section, plus a wide range of cigars for sale. What percentage of your business do you estimate comes from cigar smokers?

Ditka: It's not a major part of our business. It's not as much as the souvenirs, the shirts, or the hats, or balls that I sign. But it is a significant part of our business. First of all, it's not so much how much of the business it is. It's for the people who want to come in and have a cigar if they want to smoke one. If they don't want to smoke one, they don't have to buy one. But if they want to smoke one, we have them available. They love to come in and have a cigar after dinner. They might come upstairs, sit in the cigar bar, listen to the entertainment and have a cigar.

KS: When I was there, you offered many different brands of cigars.

Ditka: We offer a whole array -- probably about 25 different brands.

KS: Do you still have the Ditka cigar?

Ditka: Yes.

KS: Coleen McShane, of the Illinois Restaurant and Bar Association, has said that a smoking ban would only further erode the already meager profits of restaurateurs in this soft economy.

Ditka: I agree with her. But our revenue was up last year; it was up because of the kind of restaurant we are: we're a good restaurant, we have good food, we have good service. We give people the choice of whether they want to smoke or not. I think that's a big choice. We do a lot of conventions. When conventions come to town, we get a lot of business from them.

KS: A central Chicago location off Michigan Avenue helps.

Ditka: Yes. These people want to go where it's comfortable. You just can't take people's freedoms away from them. This is what it is. Nobody is complaining. Their whole contention is about the employees. But we already had a meeting and all our employees were out in full force and they supported allowing smoking. Not only our employees -- Gibson's employees, the Chop House, Tavern on Rush, Carmine's -- there are so many in Chicago, I could go on and on, but all of these allow cigar smoking.

KS: How long have you been open there?

Ditka: About five years. And no one has complained, to my knowledge, during that time.

KS: Does the ban being proposed apply differently for free-standing bars and taverns and restaurants, and how does this affect you?

Ditka: Anywhere food is served, they won't allow [smoking]. The one guy, Alderman Burke, is for no smoking in any public area. You know, Chicago is a little different than New York and L.A. -- and excuse me for saying that, whether you are a New Yorker or whatever you are, I don't care -- Chicago is Chicago. It is a city of broad shoulders, it is a city of tough people and Grabowskis -- that's the way I look at it. Not allowing smoking here would be like not allowing it in Pittsburgh. I grew up in steel mills; I smelled the smoke and soot every morning. These people lived long lives and they drank and they smoked. Nobody wants anyone to get sick and nobody wants anyone to die. It's the choice people have. There are people who want to jump out of airplanes; if they want to jump, it's their choice. People skateboard, people ride motorcycles. That's their choice. By God, you can't take that away from them.

KS: Worst-case scenario -- if public smoking is outlawed in Chicago, would you consider closing Ditka's, or no?

Ditka: I don't think you'd do that. I think you'd look at the options of making it a private club and charging everyone a dollar if they come in and they have the option of doing what they want to do. I think there might be a way around it. I think every lawyer in the world would explore these things and I think all the restaurants and the restaurant associations would explore all these options.

KS: What kind of people are fighting this -- would it be fair to call them activists?

Ditka: I'm not sure why they suddenly got interested in this. And I would call them activists, yes. They are people who really want to limit people's rights and freedoms.

KS: Five years ago, when Cigar Aficionado interviewed you for the magazine, the economy was more robust. What do you think about this proposed ban on smoking in this 2003 economy?

Ditka: I think it's crazy; it doesn't make any sense.

KS: What's your prediction about what will happen to this bill?

Ditka: I think it will be defeated. We're hoping it will be defeated; we're working to defeat it. Whether or not we can, I don't know.

KS: What can you do: show up, plead your case, write letters, what?

Ditka: Basically, yes. We show up, plead our case, write letters. The whole thing is absurd, since Burke was made by the restaurants on the north side of Chicago. My God, for him to come out with this, he has to be dumber than I thought he was -- and that's pretty damned dumb.

KS: Is it him acting alone or are others running to him?

Ditka: He's one of them. Whether others are running to him, I don't know. But I don't think they are. I think this is basically a proposal by two people [Alderman Burke and Alderman Ed Smith] who are activists.

KS: What's our time frame for finding something out?

Ditka: We'll probably find out by July what's going on.

KS: How many other restaurants besides Ditka's in Chicago do you have?

Ditka: I have a Ditka's in Naples, Florida, but smoking will end there in July for any place that serves food. That's Florida's rule. They passed it for the whole state. Now we're talking about opening a restaurant out in the suburbs of Chicago, too. That's the thing they don't realize. If this law is passed, people will all go out to the suburbs to smoke, where it's still legal.

KS: Where will your new restaurant be outside Chicago, and how far from the city?

Ditka: It's in Rosemont, not a long ride, about 20 minutes outside the city, right by the airport. In Rosemont they will never pass this bill. One more thing -- who's going to police this? Are they going to have police do it? Are the owners supposed to police it? Are you supposed to tell customers, "You can't smoke in here?"

KS: The cigar CIA might police it?

Ditka: Yeah. They all have ideas of what they want to do, but not how they are going to do it.

KS: You have cigars in Ditka's in Naples, too?

Ditka: Sure. We have the same stock and a humidor, too.

KS: Any coaching in your future?

Ditka: No, no. I'm all through with that stuff. I want to open restaurants and be successful, and that's all I want to do.

-- Ken Shouler

Photo by Lee Celano

Ken Shouler authored the 1998 story on Mike Ditka for Cigar Aficionado magazine. He wrote about Football's Greatest Teams in the current issue.

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