You’ve probably seen a hookah. It is almost certain that most children who grew up in the United States have seen a hookah. But, like most people, you’ve probably forgotten what one looks like and what it’s used for. Think again. Remember the story of a girl named Alice who was apparently stranded in a strange and imaginative world. In Lewis Carroll’s story Alice in Wonderland, Alice stumbles upon a cocky and inquisitive caterpillar. Perched on top of a giant mushroom and smoking what appears to be a strange musical instrument, the caterpillar asks Alice a rather 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 kids first see this curiously bizarre smoking device.

When Lewis Carroll wrote the story of Alice in 1865, hookahs existed and had been in use for several centuries. Although it was never very popular in European countries, the hookah was and still is very popular in Eastern cultures such as Egypt and India. So how come this mysterious thing called a hookah has never seen its day in Europe or, in more recent times, the United States? Perhaps time is upon us!

In the past, cigars have been the ‘gourmet smoke’ for those wishing to break out of the conventional mold of cigarette smoking. Crafted from the highest quality tobaccos and hand-rolled in exotic lands, the cigars have become a true competitor to today’s additive-infused cigarettes. Cigars have become so popular, in fact, that an entire industry has sprung up based on their existence. Cigar shops and specialty tobacco shops are evidence of the profit to be made from selling tobacco in a different form factor than the cigarette. In addition to cigar shops, cigar bars have shown that smoking-friendly establishments can be socially acceptable and high-profit centers for their owners. It’s society’s acceptance of the cigar bar that makes hookah bars and hookah cafes a possibility!

There is no question that the tobacco industry has seen better days, and after the lawsuits from Big Tobacco, it is surprising that these companies are still around. Did you know that there are more than 600 legally permitted additives that tobacco companies can add to their cigarettes? It’s an incredible cocktail of chemicals that cigarette smokers put into their bodies every time they decide to light up! By comparison, today’s hookah tobacco, commonly known as shisha (pronounced: shee-shuh), is made up of only a handful of natural ingredients. These ingredients are typically tobacco, all-natural glycerin or honey, sugar, and natural flavorings. That’s 596 additives less than what could be in a regular cigarette! It’s facts like these that lead most people to believe that hookah smoking is a less harmful alternative to cigarette smoking. Unfortunately, no major study has been done to assess the health effects of hookah smoking. So, we will have to wait for a definitive answer to that question.

When the Turks invented the hookah centuries ago, they did so with one goal in mind. Until then, tobacco was smoked in pipes reminiscent of the peace pipes of the American Indians. When smoking from these pipes, the smoke was at a temperature very close to that of the burning tobacco itself. Someone came up with the idea of ​​filtering the smoke through water to cool the smoke to a comfortable temperature. The simplicity of the hookah made it an instant hit and has been one of the main reasons why hookahs are still prevalent in so many Eastern cultures. Although not originally planned when the hookah was invented, the water that the smoke passes through actually acts as a natural filter that helps filter out tar and other impurities created when tobacco is smoked. Many years after the hookah was invented, someone would accidentally drop their tobacco in molasses, thus paving the way for the modern hookah. It was the addition of molasses, now substituted by all-natural glycerin, that slowed the rate at which the tobacco burned and actually made it possible to heat the tobacco instead of burning it. Heating the tobacco results in a higher potential and reduces the amount of nicotine that is released when smoking.

Today’s hookahs, while being modernized and updated, have remained true to their creator’s initial goal. Traditionally made of glass and brass, hookahs are now made from materials such as acrylic, glass, and steel. Plus, the once-handcrafted art has morphed into a full-fledged industry that is selling record numbers of hookahs. The shisha hookah has also come of age. Hookah shisha production is at an all-time high and major manufacturers are creating more and more flavors to be consumed by customers around the world. Flavors include everything from fruity apples and oranges to regional favorites like bubblegum and vanilla. In all, there are over 50 different flavors to choose from with more being added all the time. The precise blend of ingredients has also resulted in flavored tobacco that lasts longer. In fact, a person can smoke a bowl of tobacco for almost an hour without having to change the tobacco.

A small number of entrepreneurs have recognized the potential of the hookah and have begun opening bars and cafes specifically designed for the rental and sale of hookahs. In just a short amount of time, they have proven that there is a lot of money to be made in the hookah service industry for those willing to venture into seemingly uncharted territories. Most surprising is the low initial investment required to open a hookah establishment. For most venues, as little as 10 to 15 hookahs per 1,000 square feet of customer seating area is plenty and will pretty much guarantee there are enough hookahs to go around. When purchased in larger lots, the cost of each hookah can range from $20 to $80 and some wholesalers even offer the hookahs for free if the bar or cafe agrees to purchase their hookah tobacco from the company. Hookah rental rates range from $10 in a hookah cafe to $25 in hookah bars! Of course, the rental plan is completely up to the business owner and usually includes a single hookah shisha bowl for smoking. Lower-priced hookah tobacco refills encourage customers to stay and socialize in the intimate setting. Most of the clients do not smoke alone, but opt ​​for groups of 3-4 people. This will reduce the longevity of each tobacco bowl and increase the number of refills purchased by each party.

Before you can start renting hookahs, you must first check with local, state, and federal governments to make sure you won’t be breaking any laws or regulations. In most areas, all that is required to start renting hookahs is a tobacco sales tax permit or license. Of course, this is in addition to the typical state sales tax permit or license. You’ll 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 possible time. 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 have to choose between a bar or cafeteria concept. Cafes are generally easier to open and require a minimal amount of additional capital. The biggest expense will be the espresso machine and it will cost between $2,000 and $14,000 depending on the make, model, and if used, the age of the machine. If you plan the coffee trail, it is recommended that you pick up a copy of “Starting and Running a Coffee Shop” (Matzen & Harrison, Self Counsel Press 2002). Although not hookah oriented, it is full of the ins and outs of running a cafe and what it takes to operate all the coffee 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 constant stream of fresh new bodies that will keep your bar from getting stale with the locals. The hookah bar concept, along with college towns, has proven to be the most successful and profitable hookah business. There are, of course, caveats to opening a bar of any kind. You’ll have to cut out significantly more ‘red tape’, but the rewards will definitely be worth the time and effort. Hookah bars are one of the fastest growing concepts for college towns, offering a fresh new environment for twenty-somethings to hang out.

As you can see, hookahs have made their way into the European and American way of life. The tobacco shops of yesteryear have opened the way to a unique opportunity for today’s entrepreneurs. Hookah cafes and bars can make millions by providing the public with something they have been looking for and have been unable to find in the countless other cafes and bars. Hookahs bring back the intimate social gatherings of friends long lost in the hustle and bustle of modern life. Oh, and who knows? Your hookah bar or cafe could be the next big thing!

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