A French Quarter cigar shop that has been serving alcohol without the proper permits could be handed a way out of its licensing issues and gain an exemption from the city’s soon-to-be-imposed ban on indoor smoking under a proposal to be considered by the City Planning Commission.
La Habana Hemingway on Toulouse Street has been serving liquor for at least a year under a state license that defines it as a restaurant. That permit will be revoked unless it gets a license from the city, which has a ban on new bars in the French Quarter zoning district that includes the store.
To provide a fix for the situation, City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey asked the council to direct the City Planning Commission to consider creating a new zoning category — a “cigar bar” designation that could apply to La Habana. The proposed designation likely would be linked with an exemption to the newly passed smoking ban on most bars.
But that, leaders of French Quarter groups told the council Thursday, would be sending the wrong message.
“This place has been operating illegally for how long? Years? And we’re going to reward him,” French Quarter Citizens Executive Director Carol Gniady said.
Nonetheless, the council approved the plan by a 6-1 vote, with Councilwoman Susan Guidry opposed.
“What we’re doing is creating an exception to existing law, and we’re doing it for one business that has been a bad business that has been operating illegally for over a year,” Guidry said.
La Habana was purchased by its current owner, Sergio Cabrera, in 2010 and expanded into the next-door location in 2013, said Chris Kane, a lawyer representing the shop. About the same time, it began serving alcohol, as well, though it continues to serve Cuban sandwiches and other food, Kane said. About 70 percent of the store’s revenue comes from cigars, he said.
Cabrera has been working with Ramsey’s office for about 10 months to try to get its permits in order, the councilwoman said.
“This legislation is submitted in the interest of fairness toward a business owner that has attempted to do the right thing as it regards the operation of his business,” Ramsey said.
Frequent customers of the store spoke in its defense. That group includes state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, who said he is a regular patron of La Habana and argued the bar is a “respectable business” that is not a nuisance and is typically closed by 10 p.m.
Ramsey’s motion directs the City Planning Commission to look at the issue and potentially recommend a new classification for the bar.
Councilman James Gray and council President Stacy Head both characterized their support for the measure as a way to let the process move forward without committing to how they would vote on whatever proposal the Planning Commission puts forward. Head said that perhaps the city’s zoning laws have lagged behind the businesses that populate the city and it is time for cigar bars to be officially included in city regulations.
While the proposal is designed to apply to La Habana, the final version could end up allowing all six cigar shops in the Quarter to begin serving alcohol, Guidry said.
“This is one of those nightmares that neighborhood people constantly talk about,” she said. “When a new business comes in and wants to operate as a standard restaurant, the fear is that they will morph into a new bar.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.