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Smoke-free Clover Patch to smell a little sweeter

Betty Britzman, a waitress at Neil’s Clover Patch, serves Leslie Brown, Brianna Auld, Jamie Auld, and Bob Auld at lunchtime. Families like the Aulds will be able to eat smoke free at the Clover Patch starting Feb. 1 when the restaurant bans smoking. - Matt Johnson
Betty Britzman, a waitress at Neil’s Clover Patch, serves Leslie Brown, Brianna Auld, Jamie Auld, and Bob Auld at lunchtime. Families like the Aulds will be able to eat smoke free at the Clover Patch starting Feb. 1 when the restaurant bans smoking.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Neil Colburn is tired of his restaurant being better known for its smoke than for its food.

After almost 20 years of cooking at and owning one of South Whidbey's best-known eateries, Neil's Clover Patch, Colburn and his wife and business partner, Candace Culver, are taking the restaurant where it's never been before -- smoke-free.

On Jan. 31 the staff at the restaurant will crush out the last cigarette and empty the last ash tray. Known at least for the past few years as one of a dwindling number of places a person could go for a cigarette with a cheeseburger and a cup of coffee, the change is sudden and could be difficult for some long-time customers.

"This is where we always go," said Clover Patch diner Daniele Meyer.

Meyer has lunch at the restaurant at least once a week with friend Norma Stepan. Both are smokers and both say they will go looking for another place to eat lunch starting in February.

"I think they should have somewhere for smokers," Meyer said.

The change, Colburn said, is based entirely on a business decision. Comments from customers and potential customers have convinced him over time that being a free-smoke zone is losing him more customers than he is gaining by catering to the habit. He has also lost a number of high-school-age job applicants, who turned down jobs at the Clover Patch after their parents smelled the smoke inside the restaurant.

In the past few years as restaurants such as the Freeland Cafe have limited or eliminated smoking, his eatery has developed a heavier and heavier haze at lunchtime. Colburn said he has seen customers open the door to walk in for a meal and turn around at the smell of smoke.

"We've gotten worse," he said.

Now -- as he is in the process of remodeling and expanding his Bayview business into an adjacent space formerly occupied by Robyn's Discount Store -- is the perfect time to extinguish his restaurant's smoking reputation. He said he wants people coming to the Clover Patch to be thinking about his prime rib dinners, the lunchtime Superburger, or the omelette and egg dishes that keep locals walking in the door day after day.

The health issue around smoking, as it concerns both his customers and employees, played a part in his decision. Going smoke-free will affect people on both sides of the lunch counter, since Colburn has employees who smoke and some who do not.

But with the near-constant haze in the restaurant at mealtimes, in actuality, he said, everyone smokes when they're in the Clover Patch.

"If you're running around in that and whether you smoke or not, you are," he said.

Bob Nelson, an Oak Harbor resident who eats at the Clover Patch every time he is on South Whidbey, said that although the smoke doesn't bother him, he understands why people dislike it. He said he is more offended by people who wear heavy doses of perfume and cologne.

He said he does not believe Washington should follow California's lead on the smoking issue. More than a year ago, California outlawed smoking in establishments once considered public, including, most notably, bars.

"I think a lot of people go a little too far," Nelson said.

Colburn said he hopes his smoking customers will continue to eat at his restaurant. They just need to remember to leave their cigarette butts at the door.

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