What's With All the Hookah Lounges in Louisville?
It’s Friday night on Bardstown Road and Friend's Hookah Café is, quite literally, smoking.A hookah bubbles, drawn by Dair Sharipov, a 22-year-old regular at Friends. He comes here because it’s a laid-back alternative to going out drinking. “I don’t see anything new in bars," he says. "People getting into fights. It’s the same thing over and over.” He’s not alone. Over the past five years Bardstown Road’s retail heart has seen an explosion in both hookah lounges and shops that sell glass pipes, cigarettes and other smoking ware. Some offer food and coffee or tea. Others are pretty much just places to smoke hookahs and hang out. At least five hookah lounges are on this small area with a sixth, called Ugly Hookah, slated to open soon. Add in the smoke shops, and there are a dozen places within walking distance that cater to the puffing crowd. At some establishments, patrons can smoke a communal pipe. At others, they can buy such a pipe, or pick up refills for electronic cigarettes. The stores have become a notable presence in the Highlands, and their popularity springs from what they aren't—bars or regulated. Hookahs have been available in the Highlands for years, and there's no shortage of places to buy tobacco products. So why are these businesses exploding now? Because they're profitable. “There’s a wide range of profit in the business," says Zachary Bralley, co-owner of the 4-month-old Mazai Hookah Lounge. "It costs us, depending on what kind of tobacco we use, there are different grades of tobacco. It can go from 97 cents a bowl of tobacco that you order to $7 on a cheaper one that we charge $10 for we’re looking at a $9 profit.” And products that don't create smoke are profitable, too. Many of the new shops on Bardstown Road don't offer the chance to sit and smoke a hookah. They sell tobacco and accessories, such as e-cigarettes.The business is successful enough for a handful of stores to survive in close proximity. And even a few more longstanding shops have joined the e-cigarette bandwagon. “Before I was here we had a fairly limited amount of of e-cigarettes and vaporizers, now that’s dramatically expanded," says Adam White, owner of Electric Ladyland on Bardstown Road. Once known for its pipes, music section, and Bob Marley posters, Electric Ladyland is now riding one of the smoking industry’s hottest trends. And it's paying off. “We’re trying to get up to about $50,000 a month," White says. "Same a year before it was more like 30.” This rise in businesses that serve smokers is surprising, given that it comes six years after Louisville banned smoking indoors. But these shops' popularity is tied to how they operate. They're barely regulated, if at all. E-cigarettes are mostly untouched by rules that apply to regular cigarettes. As for hookahs, it depends on what's in them. Louisville bans the use of any tobacco product indoors, but hookahs can be used inside to smoke herbal blends that contain no tobacco. Zachary Bralley, who co-owns Mazai, says Louisville requires special certifications for hookah bars. “You have to have a hookah license, basically a license for you to smoke hookah inside a building … the difference is we’ve got no nicotine in our smoke, that’s why we got to have that," Bralley says. But he's not clear on if it's tobacco his customers are smoking. “It's not tobacco," he says. "It has no nicotine. It's just molasses flavor. It's just tobacco leaf. It's not the tobacco itself.” Yeah. So. Many hookah lounges call their products tobacco as a sort of shorthand. It can be real tobacco or herbal blends. But two things are clear: “There's no exemption or special licenses for hookahs," says Jessie Halladay, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Attorney. “The ordinance deals specifically with tobacco products and is very clear the smoking of tobacco products is prohibited.” The second thing: While herbal blends follow the letter of the law, they may not follow the spirit of it, which—as stated—is to serve the public health. Even if the hookah is only stuffed with herbs and flavors, it's still fired by charcoal. And the carbon monoxide, metals and other chemicals released pose a risk quite different from nicotine and tar, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Louisville Metro Public Health has cited no hookah bars for violating the smoking ban in the last two years, but inspectors have been called to lounges twice. So even if it's not tobacco being smoked, what's sold may be labeled “tobacco" in some shops. Karen Fanning is inside Cafe 360, puffing on a hookah. “You can’t smoke cigarettes anymore in establishments, but you can go to a hookah bar and get a flavored tobacco to smoke while you’re eating and it’s a great thing," Fanning says. Whether she actually got tobacco, only the shopkeeper—or a chemist—would know for sure. But the city might be interested. (Images via Shutterstock)