Hookah lounge owners find options limited with new smoking law

  • Mena Abadir, co-owner of Schaumburg's newest hookah lounge, Arabian Nights, relaxes in his establishment's lounge. He is leading the charge for area hookah lounges to receive entertainment licenses.

      Mena Abadir, co-owner of Schaumburg's newest hookah lounge, Arabian Nights, relaxes in his establishment's lounge. He is leading the charge for area hookah lounges to receive entertainment licenses. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Mena Abadir, left, and Yasmina Nader, co-owners of Schaumburg's new hookah lounge Arabian Nights, relax in one of their establishment's lounge rooms. They are trying to get an entertainment license.

      Mena Abadir, left, and Yasmina Nader, co-owners of Schaumburg's new hookah lounge Arabian Nights, relax in one of their establishment's lounge rooms. They are trying to get an entertainment license. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/25/2008 4:07 PM

Combining cultures in a 21st-century America governed by strict legal definitions and categories is at the heart of a problem facing suburban hookah lounges.

And perhaps no Illinois community is struggling with it more than Schaumburg, now home to six.

 

Even under a new statewide smoking ban - and in a society where public tobacco use is increasingly restricted - hookah lounges are aberrations as legally allowable smoking establishments.

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But they're now barred in Schaumburg from offering live entertainment such as the singers, dancers and disc jockeys that are often been part of their ambiance.

Hookah bars are allowed to exist, but they're banned from offering much of anything that might entice nonsmokers to go there.

Yet some proprietors and customers think that's heavy-handed and are seeking a compromise. One of Schaumburg's new establishments, Arabian Nights, was just turned down for an entertainment license and plans to appeal that at Tuesday's village board meeting.

Village code compliance manager Mary Passaglia said the staff also wants more clarity on how far such bars can be allowed to go in entertaining its patrons.

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Culture vs. code

One concern is fairness, Trustee Tom Dailly said. If you let a smoking venue have live entertainment, do you then have to let entertainment venues allow smoking?

"When you deal with these things at a government level, you have to make sure you're treating everyone fairly," he said.

While Western smoking practices have been easier to isolate and regulate by legislation, the use of tobacco in lounges with Asian and Middle Eastern roots is a more deep-seated part of the overall culture.

"Cultures are blending, and you want to make sure you're respecting culture," Dailly said. "This doesn't quite fit into our culture yet, but this is a big part of their culture."

Arabian Nights co-owners Yasmina Nader and Mena Abadir never expected their entertainment license to become an issue at all, much less this complicated. They were stunned when, without warning or explanation, the board unanimously rejected their request last month.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"To be honest, we never thought it would go to this extent," Nader said. "We thought this was an open-and-shut case."

Regulations specify that a smoking venue must earn 80 percent of revenue from and devote 90 percent of its floor area to the sale of tobacco.

Alcohol is banned and food and beverage choices very limited. Getting permission to serve any food at all was a struggle for the village's first hookah bar two years ago.

Arabian Nights owners took the rules so literally, they measured foot by foot to ensure the area reserved for the deejays, bands and dancers they hoped to bring in would occupy no more than 10 percent of floor space.

While they don't see live entertainment as a make-or-break issue, they do think it would enhance the experience for customers.

And they don't think it would mislead anyone into thinking the lounge is anything other than, primarily, a smoking bar.

"If you don't like the atmosphere, you're going to walk out," Abadir said, "just like any other business."

Junaid Karim owns the Aria Lounge chain in Addison, Grayslake, Glendale Heights and Schaumburg. He said he's not interested in providing live entertainment, unlike "some of these new ones trying to make it more of a club-slash-hookah-lounge."

Imad Tsay of Algonquin and Bogie Bartel of West Chicago were among a half-dozen business colleagues visiting Arabian Nights on a recent Wednesday evening.

They interpreted the laws as a new form of prohibition and felt both alcohol and entertainment should be allowed at hookah lounges.

"My opinion is that there should be entertainment," Tsay said. "Whatever happened to the free country that we had?"

"What's wrong with having a good cigar and a bourbon along with that?" Bartel said.

The group said live music or a belly dancer would definitely enhance the venue.

"We don't see this as just a smoking place. We see this as a cultural place," Tsay said.

Fariz Burhanuddin, representing the owner of the new Inferno Lounge in Schaumburg, recently told trustees he doesn't buy into the notion that live entertainment would give hookah bars an unfair advantage over other nightlife venues.

Those businesses still have three revenue streams to draw on - food, alcohol and entertainment - while hookah lounges are asking for only two: tobacco and entertainment, he said.

While not seeking a license himself, he and the owners of the new Inferno Lounge attended the meeting on Arabian Nights' application out of recognition that its fate will be the same as their own.

Chris Vacek, manager of the Dhuwan Hookah Lounge near Loyola University in Chicago, said police have been more interested in looking for underage smokers since the new state law took effect, completely ignoring the fact there are deejays performing on the weekends.

Setting precedent

Ahmed Ansari, co-owner of Schaumburg's first hookah lounge, Fumare, agreed Arabian Nights' current struggle will affect all local lounges.

Just as he feels his similar battle to offer limited food paved the way for businesses that followed, this new issue could improve things for him.

Ansari says he can survive without live entertainment. But he'd like more freedom to serve his customers. As it is now, hookah bars are limited to TVs and recorded music, said Passaglia, the village code official.

As an experienced deejay himself, Ansari can personally play recorded music in his bar, he said. But without an entertainment license, he can't hire guest deejays.

Whether Schaumburg can sustain six hookah lounges - live entertainment or not - is another matter.

There was a bit of a rush for new ones to get business licenses before Jan. 1, when state law banned new ones in attached buildings.

Nader, Abadir and Ansari said Schaumburg was a natural location because of its size and accessibility.

Nader and Abadir said they felt being the sixth hookah lounge in town meant local officials would understand their type of business.

While all feel that there's room for six local hookah bars, Ansari said he wishes the newer ones hadn't located so close by.

"I think it's all due to our success," he said.

Hookah hangouts

In addition to dozens in Chicago, hookah lounges are popping up around the suburbs. A sampling:

• A.A. Cigar & Hookah Lounge: 270 Town Center Lane, Glendale Heights, (630) 529-9730

• Arabian Nights: 1224 N. Roselle Road, Schaumburg, (847) 885-7665

• Aria Lounges: 443 W. Lake St., Addison, (630) 628-3644; 134 E. Army Trail Road, Glendale Heights, (630) 283-0422; 1816 Belvidere Road, Grayslake, (847) 548-0870; 349 S. Roselle Road, Schaumburg, (847) 301-2805

• Dhuwan Hookah Lounge: 2801 Ogden Ave., Lisle, (630) 637-8355

• Fumare Hookah Lounge: 305 W. Golf Road, Schaumburg, (847) 310-8802

• Inferno Lounge: 901 S. Roselle Road, Schaumburg, (847) 301-9999

• Milan Hookah Lounge: 935 W. Golf Road, Schaumburg, (847) 310-4840

• Mr. Shesha Coffee House: 1570 W. Ogden Ave., Naperville, (630) 983-6600

• Pita Paradise: 161 S. Schmale Road, Carol Stream, (630) 752-9266

• X-Hale Lounge: 1320 N. Roselle Road, Schaumburg (soon to open; no phone number available)

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