Colorado Springs' first hookah lounge appeared four years ago, in a modest south-side house that had long harbored a deli. Set back a ways from East Cheyenne Road, with a simple sign that read "Hooked on Hookah," it seemed a pretty inconspicuous nightlife addition.
It would've been difficult then to imagine that by the end of the decade, Hooked on Hookah would have expanded to a second location on North Academy Boulevard — and that both would be flourishing, along with competitors all over the city.
"On the north side we can get 100 [Air Force Academy] cadets a night," says Matt Britigan, a customer-turned-shisha-barista. "And on the south side, more and more Fort Carson soldiers show up for a hookah and some downtime."
Business has actually been too good, in a sense. Brothers Ramy and Shady Eshak, both in their mid-20s, say they were spending too much time at work and not enough time studying. So they've sold the south-side Hooked on Hookah, and now are considering selling the north-side location as well.
"We're both college students," Ramy says. "We decided to get out, finish school, and then maybe open another one.
"But the hookah craze is not slowing down."
According to hookah-bars.com, there were nearly 500 hookah bars and lounges nationwide in 2008, with about five more opening every month. The exponential growth is especially obvious here, where at least seven lounges and two smoke shops (where hookah pipes, tobacco and accessories are sold) have popped up since Hooked on Hookah's Cheyenne Road location opened in 2005.
In the three years since its first shop appeared in Colorado Springs, 40 Thieves Hookah Lounge has opened locations in Widefield and Littleton. Next up: Waco, Texas, where Chris Copeland's first franchisee aims to capitalize on the student customer base at Baylor University.
"If [customers] are just turning 18," he explains, "they are adults and they want to be able to socialize as adults, but there are limited options. They can go to a movie full of families and kids, or they can go to a club full of alcohol and craziness. This is a great alternative."
At the original 40 Thieves on North Academy Boulevard, underground hip-hop flows over the sound system, palm fronds straight from the set of Arabian Nights surround long couches strewn with pillows, and pool tables offer entertainment that complements good conversation and good shisha. It is the essence of "chill."
It's an equally comfortable, but different kind of vibe, at the Wallahee Lounge (the former south-side Hooked on Hookah). Walking in there is like walking into your best friend's house. In the living room, customers sit in any number of lounge chairs in front of a widescreen television; plug Madden NFL 10 or any of a dozen other games into the Playstation 2; order a fruity hookah concoction from the menu; and settle in for an evening of total relaxation. There's also a huge backyard with picnic tables for those who prefer to stargaze, and tables and chairs for board games or poker. The new owners, brothers Sam Knudson and Amer Mansour, have begun hosting 25-percent-off Monday Night Football parties and anticipate "snow day" events "for those days when the whole city shuts down."
Another of the Springs' newer lounges, Abookah Hookah on Austin Bluffs Parkway, sits unobtrusively in a strip mall next door to a Little Caesars Pizza. Inside, the lounge is broken up into multiple rooms with cushy couches, low tables and booths along the walls; a DVD player and projector are available for use in the back.
Kyle, a regular at Abookah Hookah, started hanging out at hookah lounges three years ago, when he turned 18.
"It's a social experience. It's relaxing," he says, passing the pipe across the table to his roommate. "I come in with friends, to hang out with Sam [Ayaad, the owner], to watch a movie." He shrugs. "I'm just not into the party scene."
Abookah Hookah loaded its first water pipe roughly six months ago. "On the day I opened, I made only $23," Ayaad says. "But after that, business picked up."
Ayaad's clientele is also mostly the 18-to-20-something crowd, and he agrees that hookah lounges offer college kids an attractive alternative to "traditional" social activities like clubs and bars. But Ayaad also cites a growing interest in Middle Eastern culture, fueled mainly by military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When the military guys get back," he says, "they want the double apple shisha [a harsh tobacco flavor normally more popular in the Middle East], and the Turkish coffee or the Middle Eastern tea. They have had these things over there, and they want to experience them again at home."
Isam (Sam) Samara, owner of the four-month old Hookah King smoke shop downtown on Bijou Street, also counts several Iraq veterans among his clientele. He came from Albuquerque, N.M., inspired by — but not wanting to compete with — friends down there who had run a successful smoke shop. Business here has been good, Samara says; in early October, he expanded his downtown operation from just a smoke shop to a full lounge.
With the Springs currently housing some 35,000 active-duty military personnel, and with thousands more expected to relocate to Fort Carson over the next four years, that chunk of clientele should only grow. So while a fickle demographic still could undo the skyward progression, as of now Colorado Springs seems ready for a thousand years of hookah smoke.
"It's one of those things that balances out everything else," says Hooked on Hookah's Ramy Eshak. "Someone is always going to want to drink at a bar, and someone is always going to want to smoke [at a hookah lounge]."
OK, hookah lounges have actually been growing in popularity for more than a thousand years. As with yoga and feng shui, it's just taken a while for Westerners to catch on.
The first hookahs were made in India and Pakistan from coconut shells and were used to smoke opium and hashish. When hookah (aka nargile, shisha and hubble bubble) spread through the Middle East and into the Arab regions of North Africa, it evolved into its current form: a water pipe used to smoke tobacco flavored with herbs, fruit and molasses.
In Turkey, especially, hookah found its way into bars and coffee shops where people gathered to chat and relax around the pipe. The social aspect of hookah has remained the same, and, according to 40 Thieves owner Chris Copeland, this is one reason smoking hookah is becoming increasingly popular.