The Pandemic Couldn’t Bring this Pizza Spot Down. But Tobacco Did.

Since high school, Teddy Diggs knew he wanted to open a restaurant. He studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After graduating, he worked in fine-dining restaurants throughout Washington, D.C. He traveled each year to Italy, studying different regions’ cuisines every time. Through these trips, he fell in love with Rome.

“It brings all of the regions of Italy together,” Diggs said. “Rome has a terrific history and more recent renaissance of baking and pizza.”

Taking all of his culinary knowledge, as well as his desire to create a welcoming restaurant that could be a place for his wife Holly, two daughters, and the entire community to gather, Diggs opened Coronato Pizza in the South Green strip mall in Carrboro, North Carolina, in August 2019.

Diggs describes Coronato as a “modern approach to Roman cooking.” Unlike a typical American pizzeria with large pizzas to share, Coronato serves Roman-inspired pizzas as individual entrées. Customers experience full-service dining, with opportunities for drinks as well as appetizer and dessert courses. While Coronato offers guests an upscale dining experience, Coronato is not a fine-dining restaurant like the ones Diggs worked at in the past; Coronato is meant to be approachable for the local community and families.

“Everyone loves pizza,” Diggs said, noting that Roman-inspired pizza is “really fun to eat.” Roman-inspired pizza, or pizza Romana, has less water and more olive oil in the dough compared to other types of pizza. This makes the crust thin and crispy, or “cracker-like,” as Coronato’s website says.

Diggs wanted to open Coronato to share his love Roman-inspired pizza and create a community spot for his family, friends, and neighbors, he said.

After opening, Coronato was an immediate success. Business was booming, and customers loved the restaurant.

Six months later, the pandemic hit.

“We had to shift to a take-out-only model,” Diggs said. For Coronato, this was a big change. Compared to many pizza restaurants that thrive on take-out and delivery orders, Coronato focused on its full-service, in-person dining experience. Luckily, since dine-in restaurants all across North Carolina were forced to turn to take-out only, Coronato stayed afloat. After two years, Diggs was able to bring back his dream full-service model.

“It was a great place to work,” said Ava Elliott, who worked at Coronato from May 2021 to March 2023 while a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She loved serving customers and getting to know them. “Everyone loved [Diggs’s] pizza,” she said.

Unlike most restaurants that survived the pandemic, though, Coronato was not going to be able to stay dine-in for long.

Smoke, Symptoms, and Strip Malls

In August 2022, just three months after Coronato restarted their in-person, full-service model, Oasis Cigar Lounge moved in next door in the same strip mall.

“Even before Oasis opened, we started getting the [cigar] smell and smoke from our neighbor’s space over to our space,” Diggs said. He, his family, and his employees started having symptoms common with tobacco smoke exposure, such as headaches, irritated eyes, and lightheadedness, Diggs and Elliott said.

Diggs went to his doctor, Maria T. Thekkekandam, MD, for his symptoms, who believed he could be dealing with health issues because of smoke intrusion. This was her written statement:

“My patient Theodore Diggs has been complaining of new symptoms of sinusitis, dizziness, pharyngitis, occasional shortness of breath, nausea, and significant fatigue that have been ongoing since around August 2022. This coincides with his report of increased exposure to secondhand and thirdhand cigar smoke at his workplace, where he works many hours a day. These exposures can lead to long-term negative health outcomes including increasing cancer risk, cardiovascular risk, and allergy symptoms, due to carcinogens and irritants emitted by secondhand and thirdhand smoke. They may be causing his symptoms. I would advise eliminating exposure to secondhand and thirdhand smoke as a generally-accepted healthier practice for any of my patients, to the best of their abilities.”

a portrait of Teddy Diggs in a kitchen
Teddy Diggs dealt with headaches, dizziness, and other symptoms at work, he said. His doctor Maria T. Thekkekandam said these symptoms may be caused by second- and thirdhand smoke exposure.

While the state of North Carolina does not allow cigar lounges that opened after July 1, 2009 (such as Oasis) to open in locations connected with other public places (such as a strip mall), Oasis was able to open in the South Green strip mall in Carrboro through an exception. In North Carolina, private clubs where the club’s funds come from member donations are exempt from the smokefree law and can allow smoking indoors. Oasis is a private club that fits this exemption.

“If membership organizations such as Oasis were illegal, we wouldn’t have gotten the lease,” said Natalie Baucum, the media representative for Oasis.

Originally, Oasis used three heavy-duty filters to keep cigar smoke at bay. Since there are so many other cigar lounges, both freestanding and in strip malls, Baucum said, Oasis was not worried about tobacco smoke from the lounge infiltrating into the other businesses sharing walls with it, including Coronato.

Frustrated with the cigar smoke, Diggs reached out to Oasis and both businesses’ landlord, Woodhill Associates, but he initially did not get any help. After reaching out a few more times, Woodhill provided Diggs with a mobile air system purifier, Diggs said. Diggs, his employees, and his patrons still noticed significant tobacco smoke in Coronato. “The air purifier did not make any difference to our experience of the smoke,” Diggs said.

Oasis then increased the number of filters they had from three to five, Baucum said, but Diggs said smoke still impacted Coronato. Once the cigar lounge officially opened its doors to its club members on September 16, 2022, the smoke intrusion worsened. Diggs reached out again to Oasis and Woodhill, but at this point, both felt they had done all they could to help Diggs.

“We did our best to try to reach out and speak to [Coronato],” Baucum said, emphasizing that Oasis wanted to “play with our neighbor well.” When Oasis moved in, the cigar lounge hoped to collaborate with Coronato, such as encouraging their cigar customers to buy the restaurant’s pizza while smoking at Oasis since the lounge did not sell food.

During this time, Diggs and others in Coronato continued to face symptoms of tobacco smoke exposure. The smell was intense, too.

“I would leave work with my clothes smelling like cigar smoke,” said Elliott, a Coronato server. She said the smell in the restaurant worsened after the chefs (who started wearing masks because the cigar smoke was so bad) finished cooking pizza for the night. The smell of pizza baking masked some of the cigar smoke, but once the night’s shift was done, the cigar smell took over.  Elliott quit working at Coronato in March 2023 – earlier than she planned to – because of the cigar smoke.

“Knowing how it was affecting me in the immediate,” Elliott said, “I was concerned for my health in the long term.” Before ending her job at Coronato, Elliott worked there five days a week.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, the tobacco smoke that comes off of a burning cigar or cigarette or is exhaled by someone smoking. Secondhand smoke exposure can lead to lung cancer, coronary heart disease, and strokes.

Elliott was not the only employee to quit due to the smoke, Diggs said. He faced a lot of employee turnover during these months. He needed to do something about the smoke, but neither Oasis nor Woodhill were willing to help beyond providing the air filters.

“Both the landlord and Oasis told me that they had done everything that they were going to do,” Diggs said. Thus, in November 2022, he reached out to Repace Associates, Inc., a secondhand smoke consulting company, to test for tobacco smoke in Coronato.

The Results Come in About Secondhand Smoke Intrusion

James Repace has consulted with clients all around the United States about secondhand smoke since the 1980’s. He measures secondhand smoke using a passive nicotine monitor to collect nicotine in the air; for Coronato, he kept the monitor in the restaurant for 16 days during January 2023. Of all of the clients Repace has ever tested for secondhand smoke, Coronato was in the 99th percentile of most smoke intrusion. The levels of secondhand smoke and nicotine in Coronato were hazardous to human health, he said.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Repace said. “I had done cigar bars before. Cigars make so much more smoke than regular cigarettes do.” Cigars make more smoke because they are bigger than a traditional cigarette. More volume means more smoke – and more smoke intrusion.

Diggs felt a mix of emotions after finding out that Coronato was filled with cigar smoke. Understandably, he was upset that his restaurant had dangerous levels of toxic smoke, but he also felt validated. “It was almost a feeling of relief,” he said. After months of being told by his landlord and Oasis that there was no issue, he now knew his symptoms and the smell of cigar smoke were real; there were hazardous levels of cigar smoke in his restaurant.

a strip mall with Oasis Cigar Lounge and Coronato Pizza
Oasis Cigar Lounge and Coronato Pizza were neighbors in the same strip mall. Cigar smoke from Oasis created hazardous levels of secondhand smoke in Coronato, said secondhand smoke consultant James Repace.

After getting his results in March 2023, he switched his restaurant model back to take-out only. He had closed his dining room periodically since Oasis moved in whenever the smoke was unbearable, but the results prompted him to make the official switch to a completely take-out model. While that worked during the pandemic, it was harder this time around.

“The rest of the industry was having a resurgence in dine-in,” Diggs said. “[Take-out only] wasn’t as sustainable long term.” He said that he couldn’t even keep the outdoor patio open like he did during the pandemic because the smoke was so strong right outside of Oasis and Coronato. Even when customers just stopped in to pick up their pizza, they mentioned they could smell smoke.

The take-out model took a toll on Coronato employees, too, Elliott said, who missed serving and talking with patrons. “There were regulars that came in and dined every week. I got to get to know them very well. I just really liked serving, and having to take that away from my job wasn’t a great feeling.”

Secondhand Smoke Intrusion Leads to Thirdhand Smoke Residue

Soon after receiving the results from Repace, Diggs reached out to the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center to get a Do-It-Yourself test for thirdhand smoke, the toxic residue left behind after someone smokes. It can stick to and embed in surfaces, such as walls, tables, and countertops for months, and its chemical makeup can change over time.

The Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center measures nicotine on surfaces and in the air to determine the levels of thirdhand smoke and smoke intrusion. The Center found that the pizza boxes at Coronato had nicotine levels that one would see in homes of people who smoke inside; the nicotine levels in the air were similarly high.

“I was alarmed,” said Georg Matt, PhD, the director of the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center. “I did not expect pizza boxes would be such a receptive surface.” Pizza boxes tend not to stay in a restaurant very long since they are used to bring pizza from place to place. The fact that so much residue built up on the boxes before being used was surprising, Matt said.

In addition, Matt said, thirdhand smoke can be transported from place to place on objects, so if a contaminated box goes into a smokefree home, the box brings the thirdhand smoke residue into the home. “You assume the box is sterile, but it’s not if you live next to a cigar lounge,” Matt said.

a variety of pizza and appetizers from Coronato Pizza
The Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center and the center’ director Georg Matt found tobacco residue on Coronado’s pizza boxes. This was surprising since the boxes do not stay in the restaurant very long, Matt said.

Diggs also requested Steve McLeod from Indoor Environmental Systems Inc., IAQ Smart Healthy Buildings to test Coronato for second- and thirdhand smoke. McLeod’s report in May 2023 explained McLeod found substances that indicate tobacco smoke exposure, such as nicotine and 3-ethenylpyridine, in particulate matter in the air and in residue on surfaces. The amount of smoke increased throughout the evening during testing, according to the report.

An Uncertain Future

After receiving these reports in the spring and summer, Diggs worked with one final consultant in August, Francis Conlin, a mechanical engineer and building scientist, to analyze how air flows between Oasis and Coronato. Conlin found small air leakages that are common in strip malls as well as that Oasis tended to have higher air pressure than Coronato. Since air flows from high to low pressure, air in the strip mall would flow from Oasis into Coronato through the leakages, according to the report.

By September, there wasn’t anything else he could do; Diggs closed Coronato.

“We exhausted all of our resources,” Diggs said. “The closing of Coronato was definitely a surprise to us. We didn’t imagine a year later [the smoke] would be still unresolved.” Diggs determined he could not keep putting himself, his family, his employees, and his customers at risk from tobacco smoke.

Diggs is entering into a lawsuit with Oasis and the business’s landlord Woodhill Associates, but there is no court date yet.

Around the same time, Oasis left their location, frustrated with the situation with Coronato, Baucum said.

“No one wants to continue next to another business that doesn’t want you there,” Baucum said, adding Oasis was bummed to not be able to help both their own and Coronato’s businesses flourish and felt that Coronato was “inhospitable” towards them.

“Our patrons are very much upset,” Baucum said. “[It’s] an attack on the cigar community as a whole.” Cigar lounges create an inclusive, family-like atmosphere, Baucum said, and having to close Oasis hurts the cigar smoking community.

Oasis is in the process of looking for a freestanding location in the area, Baucum said. Coronato, however, must wait until the current issue settles, especially with the financial aspects of the lawsuit. “We’d love to reopen, but we have to have a resolution first,” Diggs said.

Until then, Diggs will do his best to get things settled. He has visited the restaurant’s location from time to time throughout the month since closing. Coronato is full of memories for Diggs: the successful first few months, the pandemic, the initial recovery, and perhaps most strongly, the still-present smell of cigar smoke.

Read a swipe post of this story here.

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