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By Marcela Creps Hoosier Times
BLOOMINGTON — In a town where the highest grossing restaurant pulls in a little less than $4 million, surviving can be a difficult task.
But for the owners of Nick's English Hut, business went up this year 13 percent, putting its earnings at the top of the list of local restaurants.
One of the owners, Dick Barnes, said their numbers continue to go up a little bit every month.
"We're up this January," he said. "We're up 20 percent over last January."
While some area bars have complained that the smoking ban cost them business, Barnes attributes Nick's growth to the smoking ban.
"We have so many more pregnant women come in," Barnes said. "We have ladies come in. We hear people say ‘we've always liked Nick's but we just didn't come in because of smoking.'"
Restaurant partner and general manager Mike Hall also believes the smoking ban has boosted Nick's business.
"The smoking ban has helped our food business tremendously," he said. "People are now coming in to eat our food because there's no more smoking. Liquor sales didn't change much. It's the food sales that have helped us."
A look at the numbers shows that Nick's did $941,065 in food sales compared with $887,516 the previous year, a 6 percent increase. Alcohol sales saw a larger increase, going up 21 percent to $1,660,390 from $1,366,849 last year.
Barnes said the smoking ban has provided other benefits, including less cleaning that needs to be done to framed pictures and windows.
"Also, people tell us now they can smell the food cooking in the kitchen," Barnes said.
Hall said they also have healthier employees, since employees who smoke must leave the building to do so.
"Some of my employees have cut back a lot, because they don't smoke in the building," he said. "It's deterred them from smoking a pack a day."
A recent shift in ownership also has been good for the long-time restaurant. Barnes, Hall and longtime kitchen manager Greg "Rags" Rago are now partners.
"Morale has just peaked," Barnes said. "It's really amazing."
Hall agreed and credits the staff for helping make Nick's the No. 1 local restaurant.
"I think the reason that our sales are up is our staff has been tremendous this year," Hall said. Morale has been super."
Hall thinks new and old customers will continue to come to Bloomington. He said most of their new customers are nonsmokers who appreciate the smoke-free environment.
"We've gained a new customer base," he said.
Other local gainers: Shanti Indian Cuisine on Kirkwood saw the largest increase, more than doubling from the previous year to $368,000.
Shanti's manager Ram Parab offered a simple explanation for their increase.
"It must be lots of love and affection," he said. "People care for us."
Parab said nothing had changed during the past year, or even during the 10 years since the restaurant opened. He said many new customers will say they were told about the restaurant by a friend.
"Definitely we're happy," Parab said. "We're really happy about the support we get."
El Norteno on North Walnut more than doubled in business, going to $207,803 from $101,323.
Other locals that saw large increases included Sushi Bar on 10th Street, at $342,269, and the Encore Cafe, which climbed over the $1 million mark to $1,038,711.
George Huntington, general manager for Encore, said the presence of more people downtown is one of the things helping the restaurant achieve its goals.
"We've had a vision all along of having a kind of community gathering spot there, and it's happening," Huntington said. "It's amazing."
Huntington said the restaurant serves as a meeting place, as well as a place for music and the arts.
"It's a community-owned restaurant that's really embracing the community, and the community is embracing it," Huntington said. "I'm not sure which is which."
And then there's the food. Huntington stressed the importance of local products and the efforts made to include as many home-grown products as possible.
"We really do push that local angle as best we can," he said.