Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 18, 2014

Traverse City tobacconist wants liquor license

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A local tobacconist wants city officials to allow him to reunite tobacco, food and alcohol consumption in a public restaurant.

Mike Nolan, owner of Nolan’s Tobacco, applied for a special redevelopment liquor license to open a high-end cigar bar behind his shop on East Front Street. State law bans smoking in bars and restaurants, so the application caught some commissioners and local officials by surprise. City Manager Jered Ottenwess dropped it from this week’s agenda when city commissioners raised questions.

“It’s an interesting scenario and there are a number of nuances that we need to work through,” Ottenwess said. “We want to know if there are other similar situations.”

Nolan, upset over the delay, said all Ottenwess had to do was ask him.

Michigan lawmakers adopted a smoking ban for all public places and food service establishments in 2009. The law exempted any cigar bar in existence at the time the act went into effect in May 2010 and Nolan obtained a license. Nolan said there are 43 cigar bar licenses in the state and about a dozen of those have liquor licenses. More are expected.

“I really did not want to move into this business, but I was kind of forced to because there are other people looking to move (cigar bar) licenses up here,” Nolan said. “I’m just trying to protect my market and stay in business until I can retire.”

No cigarettes, pipe tobacco or cheap cigars are allowed in cigar bars under state law, Nolan said. Cigars must carry a grade of “premium,” and cost no less than $1 each. Nolan said he won’t sell any cigar priced less than $3.

Nolan would spend about $200,000 to refurbish the space behind his shop into a 58-seat cigar bar that will serve high-end beverages and some premium cheese and meat trays and possibly sandwiches.

The application caught Grand Traverse County Health Department officials by surprise because the 2009 legislation amends two separate laws: one bans smoking in public places but includes a few exemptions such as cigar bars; the other bans smoking in food service establishments.

“Initially, this threw us for a loop,” said Tom Buss, director of environmental health. “I was thinking there was no way you could have an establishment with smoking and eating together, but apparently there is this unwritten exemption.”

The Michigan Department of Community Health ruled in 2010 that lawmakers intended the exemptions to apply universally across both laws.

City Commissioners Jim Carruthers and Tim Werner raised questions that temporarily bumped the application off the city’s meeting agenda.

Carruthers said he and Werner hadn’t heard of the exemption and wanted to make sure Nolan’s request wasn’t an “end-around” the state smoking ban.

“It’s in the law and I’m allowed to do it,” Nolan said. “The state collects humongous taxes from us, 32 percent, and in order for us to stay in business they offered us a one-time exemption because they want to collect our taxes. “

Commissioners will revisit the liquor license application on April 7.