Hot wheels

The anti-smoking crusade has come a long way, baby. Despite howls of protest from restaurant and nightclub owners, the smoking ban has gained considerable momentum since California unveiled its historic smoke-out in 1998. In a Restaurant Business study conducted two years ago, 56% of restaurant operators said they were conducting business amidst a ban, and it stands to reason that the number is substantially higher now—and climbing all the time.

Aram Sabet, owner of the recently opened upscale New York lounge and restaurant 49 Grove, knows as well as anyone that cocktails and cigarettes go hand in hand for many of his guests. He also knows what it's like to smoke outside in a New York winter; while not a smoker, he'd frequently join his former girlfriend outside as she chased her nic-fix.

"She made me freeze my ass off," he recalls.

It was with the ex in mind—as well as the countless potential guests who'd opt to stay home and split a bottle of wine and pack of smokes with friends —that Sabet has been hiring a stretch limousine to park outside his Manhattan lounge, in which six to eight can sit, chat, and smoke without fear of punitive measures or pneumonia. Throughout New York's cold and wet season, Sabet shells out between $100 and $175 a night for the wheels (he's got a friend that owns a limo company), then attempts to snag a parking spot in front of the place.

"It's difficult, but it's not impossible," he says.

It may be a lot of grief to accommodate smokers, but Sabet, who also owns the restaurant Pacific East in the Hamptons, believes they're a constituency that's worth catering to. "Bars and restaurants started losing money from Day One of the ban," he says. "If you can offer people a nice place to smoke, you don't lose them to their apartments." He's not even the first in New York to offer a plush, four-wheeled smoke-shack to guests: restaurateur David Burke introduced his own smokers' limo at his restaurant, davidburke & donatella, earlier this year.

Both words in Sabet's so-called "smoking limo" fit right into his concept. The smoking thing works because his speakeasy-themed lounge attempts to bring back some of the hazy, boozy decadence that he believes the city has lost. And the limo fits in too, as 49 Grove, with $15 martinis and $10 small plates, VIP rooms, and a fleet of ready-for-hire luxury automobiles manned by drivers who double as concierges, is shooting for the Paris Hilton set.

The limo provides heat and music, and is staffed by an attendant, who's happy to light up the guests' smokes, or serve them bottled water, juice, or an energy drink. Sabet says that, besides offering a more pleasant place to smoke, the limo builds camaraderie among smokers, and encourages them to stay at the lounge longer and order more $15 martinis. Stocked with ashtrays, the limo also prevents his staffers from having to spend their time picking butts off the sidewalk, Sabet says, or him from paying fines for littering.

Sabet says there are no insurance costs linked to the venture, and he's been able to avoid parking tickets thus far.

"It's the only way to legally get around the law," Sabet believes.

Just how out of control are health insurance costs? The average increase in premiums was over 11% nationwide in 2004, and few expect the number to do anything but continue to climb in 2005. In fact, the CEO of a growing chain believed one would have to be smoking something mighty strong to think those costs would be coming back towards Earth any time soon. "If you believe that, I'd say you're smoking the good stuff," he commented.

Such dire forecasts have pushed some operators to get creative in the way they meet the rising costs of health insurance, short of passing those costs on to guests through menu price hikes. With nearly 400 salaried employees qualifying for coverage, fast-casual chain Noodles & Co. (which ranked No. 12 on this year's list of top growth chains) found a unique way of addressing the issue.

The company set out to keep its employees from getting sick.

No, Noodles didn't put their staffers in hermetically sealed bubbles. But the Boulder, CO-based company did set up a program that gives employees cash incentive for staying healthy.

Introduced at the start of 2004, "Fitness Bucks" rewards employees $100 for each of the three basic wellness goals they meet. Participating staffers pledge to meet the goals—pertaining to doctor visits, exercise, and smoking—at the start of the year, then revisit them come November. If they claim to have met the goals (it's based on the honor system), they get cash in hand.

If they've gotten a physical and dental exam (both are covered in full by insurance), it's $100. If they've followed a regular exercise program (Noodles suggests walking, running, weightlifting, or yoga) it's another $100. And if they've quit smoking—cessation programs are covered in their insurance too—it's $100. Heck, even if they didn't start smoking in the first place, it's a C-note.

Noodles HR VP John Puterbaugh says the program serves many purposes. Healthier employees means better attendance and productivity. It also means fewer insurance claims (Puterbaugh says claims have been merely "marginal" during the two years of the program), which presumably would lead to reduced premiums—though Puterbaugh says that's not happened yet.

He's also confident the program sends the right message about staying healthy. "It lets employees know they've got to take care of themselves," he says. "It's the only surefire strategy [for fighting health insurance costs]."

Puterbaugh says the strong majority of participants made good on their pledges and reaped the rewards last year. And with just over half the eligible employees taking part, there's certainly room to grow the program. "Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the only way to keep these costs down," believes Puterbaugh.

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