Smoker’s paradise on Pearl St.

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Downtown Express photos by Ramin Talaie

A smoker enjoys a stogie at Swan’s, which is exempt from the city’s new law because the owners are now running the bar themselves. The exemption will last until July 24 when a stricter state law takes effect.

Swan’s Bar doesn’t tout its top attraction. The Pearl St. pub relies solely on word-of-mouth and a small chalkboard sign to convey its weighty message: “Smoking Permitted.”

So far, the strategy seems to be working.

“I walked by, saw the sign ‘smoking permitted’ and walked in,” said Paul Paulsen, a 50-something telecommunications salesperson who stopped by for a cigarette and a beer on his way to the Staten Island ferry.

Swan’s is one of only seven bars citywide to have applied for an owner-operated exemption to the city’s workplace smoking ban, which went into effect on March 30, according to Andrew Tucker, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Health. Tucker could not say how many of the seven came from Manhattan.

This exception allows bars with no employees to permit patrons to light up, but only until the state’s stricter smoking law goes into effect in late July, closing the city’s owner-operated loophole.

For now, customers at Swan’s can legally puff away. The bar, at 213 Pearl St., has experienced a boost in business at a time when many nightspots are reporting a dip.

“It’s working out very well for us,” said Shay Leavy, 41, one of the bar’s three owners who works at everything from pouring drinks to hauling garbage.

On a recent Wednesday evening, Leavy estimated that at least one-third of the happy hour crowd was new, drawn in by the promise of a now-rare pleasure.

“Are there people that I haven’t seen before? Totally,” said Tara Smith, 26, a regular who works for a brokerage firm on Maiden Lane.

About half the crowd was smoking although the smell was not as noticeable as it used to be in city bars, because Swan’s has a ceiling ventilation system. But the system was not enough to prevent the smell from attaching to patrons’ clothing.

The owners applied for the owner exemption as part of their plan to shift their focus from lunchtime to evening. Lunch business had fallen 40 percent over the last two years, Leavy said, the worst since the partners opened Swan’s in 1998.

So in early April, they closed their kitchen and laid off their eight cooks and servers in order to comply with the law. They replaced the food tables in the back with two pool tables.

Malachy Noone, one of Leavy’s partners, said firing the workers “was definitely the hardest thing we ever had to do. If we didn’t stop serving food, we’d have been shut down about two weeks ago because we couldn’t make rent.”

Noone said they were able to help the head cook and one of the waitresses find a job.

Leavy found the owner-operated exemption application online and quickly compiled the tax returns, incorporation forms and other required documentation.

When he dropped off the paperwork at the Department of Health on March 31, workers there mistakenly told him that the application forms weren’t available yet, Leavy said.

“They said, ‘You’re very prompt,’” Leavy recalled. “They were surprised I was there.”

Although the Health Department is still processing his application, Leavy said, workers there assured him that he could allow smoking while it was under review. The paperwork is in order, so he’s confident that he’ll receive final approval, Leavy added.

Regulars had mixed feelings about the changes at Swan’s.

“There’s a double-edged sword here,” said Sarah Davison-Jenkins, 35, a smoker and long-time patron who works for a nearby bank. “I loved the food here.”

Davison-Jenkins said that while she liked the freedom to smoke, she felt sad that she would never again eat Swan’s “Pearl St. Wrap,” a chicken and mayonnaise concoction that was a lunchtime favorite.

Unhampered by nostalgia, Swan’s new customers cheered the reprieve from the city’s smoking ban.

“We’re so happy,” said Deoranie Ramdhani, 26, a paralegal who had come with a friend. Ramdhani said that the ability to smoke contributed to the bar’s friendly, laid-back atmosphere. “Downtown is the worst place to socialize. Here, three guys came up to me, said, ‘Hello, how are you?’ It’s great.”

“I didn’t know the place existed,” said Joe Aglione, 58, a private investigator who heard about the exemption from his friend Davison-Jenkins. Aglione said he was thrilled to find a place where he could still sit down and smoke with friends. “I come here every day.”

Leavy hopes that he can convert at least some of his new customers into regulars who will return even after the state’s smoking ban takes effect on July 24. For now, he does not have plans to bring back food or rehire his cooks.

When asked if he’d stay after the bar goes smoke-free, Aglione said, “What’s the point? I’m here only because I can smoke.”

For those like Aglione, at least one bar in the neighborhood has chosen not to observe the smoking ban, at least for now. On Wednesday night, a few patrons could be seen smoking at a bar around the corner from Swan’s, as a brand-new “No Smoking” sign hung behind the counter.

Others felt a budding loyalty to Swan’s.

“This is going to be my spot,” Ramdhani said. “They make a great Cosmo.”


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