You’ve probably seen a hookah. Most children who grew up in the United States have almost certainly seen a hookah. But, like most people, you’ve likely forgotten what one looks like and what they’re used for. Think back. Recall the tale of a girl named Alice who seemingly stranded in a strange, imaginative world. In Lewis Carroll’s story, Alice in Wonderland, Alice stumbles upon an arrogant and inquisitive caterpillar. Perched atop a giant mushroom, and smoking what appears to be a strange musical instrument, the caterpillar asks Alice a quite memorable question– “Who are YOU?” The musical instrument is not really a musical instrument at all. It is, in fact, a hookah and this hookah-smoking caterpillar is how most children get their first glimpse of this curiously strange smoking device.
When Lewis Carroll wrote the story of Alice in 1865, hookahs had been in existence and in use for several centuries. Though never really popular in European countries, the hookah was and is still very popular in Eastern cultures like Egypt and India. So, how is it that this mysterious thing called hookah has never seen its day in Europe or, in more recent times, the United States? Perhaps the time is upon us!
In the past, cigars have been the ‘gourmet smoke’ for those wishing to break out of the conventional, cigarette-smoking mold. Crafted from higher-grade tobaccos and hand-rolled in exotic lands, cigars have become a true contender to the additive-infused cigarettes of modern day. Cigars have become so popular, in fact, that they have cropped up an entire industry that is based around their existence. Cigar and specialty tobacco shops are evidence of the profit to be made from selling tobacco in a different form factor than that of the cigarette. In addition to cigar shops, cigar bars have proven that smoking-tailored establishments can be both socially-acceptable and huge profit centers for their owners. It is society’s acceptance of the cigar bar that makes hookah bars and hookah cafes a possibility!
There is no doubt that the tobacco industry has seen better days and, from the aftermath of the Big Tobacco lawsuits, it’s a wonder that these companies are still around. Did you know that there are over 600 legally-allowed additives that tobacco companies can add to their cigarettes? That’s an amazing cocktail of chemicals that cigarette smokers are putting into their bodies every time they choose to light up! In comparison, today’s hookah tobacco, commonly referred to as shisha (pronounced: shee-shuh), is comprised only of a handful of natural ingredients. These ingredients are typically tobacco, all-natural glycerin or honey, sugar and natural flavorings. That’s 596 additives short of what could be in a normal, run-of-the-pack cigarette! It’s facts like these that bring most people to believe that hookah smoking is a less-harmful alternative to smoking cigarettes. Unfortunately, no major study has been performed to evaluate the health effects of smoking hookah. So, we’ll have to wait for a definitive answer to that question.
When the Turkish invented the hookah centuries ago, they did so with one goal in mind. Up to that time, tobacco had been smoked in pipes that are reminiscent of American Indian peace pipes. When smoking from these pipes, the smoke was at a temperature very close to the burning tobacco itself. Someone came up with the idea of filtering the smoke through water to cool the smoke to an enjoyable temperature. The simplicity of the hookah made it an instant hit and has been a major reason why hookahs are still prevalent in so many Eastern cultures. Though not originally planned when the hookah was invented, the water that the smoke passes through actually acts as a natural filter that helps filter tar and other impurities created when tobacco is smoked. Many years after the hookah was invented, someone would accidentally drop their tobacco into some molasses, thus paving the way for modern hookah shisha. It was the addition of molasses, now substituted by all-natural glycerin, which slowed the rate at which the tobacco burned and actually made it possible to heat the tobacco rather than burning it. Heating tobacco results in greater flavor potential and lowers the amount of nicotine that is released while smoking.
The hookahs of today, while being modernized and updated, have remained true to their creator’s initial goal. Traditionally made of glass and brass, hookahs are now being produced of materials such as acrylic, crystal and steel. Also, the once hand-crafted art has transformed into a full-blown industry that is selling record numbers of hookahs. Hookah shisha has come of age, as well. Production of hookah shisha is at an all-time high and major manufacturers are creating more and more flavors to be consumed by customers worldwide. Flavors include everything from fruity apples and oranges to regional favorites like bubble gum and vanilla. In all, there are more than 50 different flavors to choose from and more are being added all the time. The precise mixture of ingredients has also yielded a tobacco with flavor that lasts longer. In fact, one person can smoke can smoke a bowl of tobacco for nearly an hour without having to change the tobacco.
A small number of entrepreneurs have recognized the potential of the hookah and have begun to open bars and cafes that are specifically-tailored toward the rental and sales of hookahs. In just a short period of time, they’ve proven that there is some serious money to be made in the hookah service industry for those willing to venture into seemingly unchartered territories. Most surprising is the low initial investment required to open a hookah establishment. For most locations, as little as 10 to 15 hookahs per 1,000 square feet of customer seating area is sufficient and will virtually guarantee that there are enough hookahs to go around. When purchased in larger lots, the cost of each hookah can run anywhere from $20 to $80 dollars and some wholesalers will even provide the hookahs for free if the bar or cafe agrees to purchase their hookah tobacco from the company. Rental fees for hookahs run anywhere from $10 in a hookah cafe to $25 in hookah bars! Of course, the rental plan is entirely up to the business owner and usually includes a single bowl of hookah shisha to smoke. Lower-priced refills of hookah tobacco encourage customers to stick around and socialize in the intimate environment. Most customers do not smoke by themselves, opting instead for groups of 3 to 4 people. This will reduce the longevity of each bowl of tobacco and increase the number of refills purchased by each group.
Before you can begin renting hookahs, you must first check with local, state and federal governments to ensure that you will not be breaking any laws or regulations. For most areas, a tobacco sales tax permit or license is all that is required to begin renting hookahs. Of course, this is supplemental to the typical state sales tax permit or license. You will also need to check local zoning requirements and determine the best location for your bar or cafe. There are a number of wholesalers available to get your cafe or bar up and running in the shortest amount of time possible. It is recommended that you opt for customer service and support over pennies saved, as it is often difficult to find companies that are in-tune with the American way of doing business.
In addition to hookahs, you will need to choose between a bar or cafe concept. Cafes are generally easier to open and require a minimal amount of additional capital. The largest expenditure will be the espresso machine and this will run anywhere from $2,000 to $14,000 depending upon the brand, model and, if used, the age of the machine. If you plan the cafe route, it is recommended that you pick up a copy of “Start and Run a Coffee Bar” (Matzen & Harrison, Self Counsel Press 2002). Although not hookah-oriented, it’s filled with the ins-and-outs of running a cafe and what is required to operate all of the various cafe machines. If you want to open a hookah bar that serves alcoholic beverages, it is definitely recommended that you open near a college or university campus. This will give you a steady flow of new, fresh bodies that will save your bar from going stale with the locals. The hookah bar concept, when coupled with college towns, has proven to be the most successful and profitable hookah business ventures. There are, of course, caveats to opening a bar of any type. You will have to cut through significantly more ‘red tape’ but the payoff should definitely be worth the time and effort. Hookah bars are one of the fastest growing concepts for college towns and offer a fresh, new environment for 20-somethings to hang out.
As you can see, hookahs have edged their way into the European and American lifestyle. The cigar bars of yesteryear have paved the way for a unique opportunity for the entrepreneurs of today. Hookah cafes and hookah bars stand to make millions by providing the public with something that they’ve been looking for and haven’t been able to find in the countless other cafes and bars. Hookahs bring back the social, intimate gatherings of friends that have long been lost to the hustle and bustle of modern life. Oh, and who knows? Your hookah bar or cafe could be the next big thing!