North Carolina has its Tobacco Road, but one section of Kansas City seems to be making a case for the title Hookah Highway.
Drive north on Broadway from the Plaza, for instance, and in one five-block span you’ll run into Sinbad’s Cafe and Hookah Lounge; Ali Baba Hookah Lounge; Hookah Haven, and It’s a Dream Smoke Shop. Not far away, you’ll find J Lounge Hookah Bar and Cafe (3419 Main St.); Sahara Sheesha Lounge (1714 W. 39th St.); Jerusalem Cafe (431 Westport Road), and Main Street Tobacco and Gifts (4307 Main St.).
It is a rather shocking number of establishments in a fairly small area — especially when you consider that many have sprung up in a relatively short amount of time.
While hookah has long been popular in Los Angeles and New York, metropolitan hubs with large populations of diverse ethnicities, its introduction to Kansas City has been recent. When Jason Ballou opened Main Street Tobacco and Gifts seven years ago, becoming one of the city’s earliest hookah purveyors, he didn’t exactly find an endless demand.
“No one,” he says, “had even heard of hookah.”
Not only have related supplies come to represent a healthy percentage of Ballou’s sales, but the process of smoking tobacco through a curious, multi-spout device known as a hookah has ingrained itself into the local culture.
In the various shops and lounges throughout the city, groups of 20- and 30-somethings can routinely be found socializing amid plumes of smoke. Eighteen-year-olds arrive shortly after their birthdays to finally get a (legal) taste of the hookah’s offerings. Even Kansas City rapper Tech N9ne has become a fan, so much so that he filmed a recent music video inside Hookah Haven’s Broadway location.
“It has definitely grown from the time I came here four years ago until now,” says Ian Bond, who manages Sinbad’s. “Just in the volume and the number of faces that you see.”
While the hookah clientele is notably diverse — among the customers at local hookah bars and shops are Middle Eastern transplants searching for a taste of home, middle-aged couples out on an anniversary date, even senior citizens — its popularity has undoubtedly been bolstered by a younger demographic.
According to a 2011 Wake Forest study, 40.3 percent of college students have tried hookah, almost as many as had tried cigarettes, and according to multiple local managers or owners, it is that demographic that has most warmed to the practice.
For many college students, hookah lounges also have come to serve the role long held by local coffee shops, a low-key place to bring a book or laptop and spend an hour or two studying in a laid-back environment.
In addition to Wi-Fi, many lounges supplement hookah by offering coffee, tea or smoothies, served in an atmosphere of comfort and relaxation.
And then there’s sheesha, the tobacco that comes in flavors from “Blue Mist” to “Sex on the Beach” to “Suicide.” The tobacco is filtered through water, which — though no more healthy than cigarette smoking, studies have indicated — makes for a much smoother taste. Like smoking a cigar, inhaling is uncommon.
“It can last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour,” says Lauren Mills, a regular at Sinbad’s on Broadway, “and it’s just that ‘me’ time you have to yourself ... and not be around the loud city.”
Much like the sheesha they serve, hookah lounges come in all ways, shapes and forms.
At Sinbad’s, for instance, there is a Middle-Eastern vibe. Hookah Haven strives for a laid-back feel, as evidenced by the partitioned couches and large bed that make up the establishment’s seating area. And at Ali Baba Hookah, there’s a more upbeat, night-club feel.
And if you can’t find the perfect environment, you can always do what Azaria Derseh did.
Unable to find the perfect environment at any of the existing hookah lounges in town, he opened his own.
Today, Hookah Haven is going strong enough that Derseh and a business partner, Daniel Jiregna, opened a lounge last month at 7424 Wornall Road in Waldo.
And while it stands to reason that the concentration of hookah lounges within a relatively small section of the city might breed a certain competitiveness, the hookah culture, say local owners, is one with room for all comers.
“Our businesses almost complement each other,” Derseh says. “There are people that like this setting, and people that like a more Middle Eastern setting.”
Adds Bond, “It’s not cutthroat; we’re not standing outside trying to better (the competition’s) prices.”
Whether the hookah demand continues to warrant the plethora of local lounges that have sprung up in recent years remains to be seen.
After all, cigar shops enjoyed a run of success, Ballou points out, before tapering off a bit. Each time a new hookah lounge opens, meanwhile, it takes a portion of an already rather small pie, and in the past couple years, some local lounges or shops have been forced to shutter their doors.
But for the time being, the demand is there.
“It’s never going to die,” Derseh insists. “Even if people get tired of it, there’s always going to be that core that sticks around.”