Why a Bar?
Hookah bars are where many people start smoking, and it's where many people go daily. On the flipside, there are so people that don't go at all, like expert smokers, who often won't go to Hookah bars in any way shape or form. Why is this? Well, hookah bars are very much a social experience. Many people will go out with their friends, and feel like it's the safest way to try hookah for the first time. It's something that actually advertises "hookah" in the name, versus just going to a non-dedicated smoke shop that just sells the supplies you would need. Someone who works at a bar may be even seen as a "hookah guru" while in all reality may know very little about hookah itself. Of course, this is not always the case for hookah bars. Because of the negative stigma that smoking has behind it, many hookah bars will even fail due to strict local (or federal in some cases) law. Most expert smokers can tell from a simple glance whether or not a bar will be worth their time. I think there's two simple questions that most true enthusiasts ask when deciding whether or not a bar is worth it, the first is: is it as good as what I can smoke at home? If the answer is no, (which most times it is) then why would it be worth the time or extra cost involved with going to the lounge? The second question: is it a positive environment that I can hang out in? Many enthusiasts will go to a bar simply to hang out, or to talk to some of the employee's or other lounge goers about hookah itself. In my eyes, if a bar can't answer yes to either of these questions, it's not a lounge worth going to.
The main problem that most lounges face is quality, and is why they generally answer no to the first question. The standard lounge will stock the "staple three" brands of shisha: Al Fakher, Starbuzz, and Fantasia. These are relatively low quality shisha brands, but they have some very sweet and basic flavors that are easy to explain to newbies, so they have appeal to someone who's new to smoking. The problem with that is that these brands don't really give a true hookah experience. You aren't going to be getting brands or flavors that go above and beyond, and really show off how enjoyable hookah can be. A good hookah bar will offer brands that really emphasize this, like Pure, Trifecta, Tangiers, etc. Beyond that, many bars stick to traditional Khalil Mamoon pipes, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. The problem is the upkeep- many hookah bars won't clean pipes daily, and use unwashable hoses that quickly become ghosted. Again, this makes for a low quality session, but will new smokers realize that? Absolutely not. They'll think it's normal for their Mint flavor to taste like Strawberry Daquiri, or for their Watermelon flavor to taste like Double Apple. They come to expect low quality sessions, and many people who could like hookah end up having a negative stigma for it. It turns people away, and honestly for good reason.
The second problem many bars face is atmosphere. There a several "styles" that lounges can go for, like a tea shop, a traditional bar, or even a night club. Finding the right atmosphere for a hookah bar is a tough thing to do, but can easily be the make or break for someone when deciding if they want to go there. Many bars try to emulate a night club style in the hopes of getting a party crowd in, or people who are too drunk to realize they're having a poor quality session. While they may have a huge night rush on Friday nights, this makes it tough for business during weekdays, and will turn away the majority of smokers (like myself) who want to feel like they need to chug a fifth of vodka before going to smoke and relax. It's a pretty contradictory concept in my eyes- you get all rowdy for something that you sit back and relax with. Don't get me wrong, the right bowl can get me super pumped, but drunk smoking always results in something being broken. As far as traditional hookah bars go, I generally assume a middle eastern type of feel, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. The problem with that type of bar is that it attracts a very middle eastern crowd, and can be seen as intimidating to someone who has never tried hookah before. Tea shop style hookah lounges are generally my personal favorite, as I think that there's nothing better than enjoying a nice bowl with a cup of tea. However, this can sometimes shift the focus away from the smoking aspect of the lounge, and can attribute to a low quality session.
There's a lot of things to be taken into consideration when owning and operating a hookah lounge, so I decided to ask one of the most sucessful lounge owners in America what his secrets are.
Interview with Alex Danaciyan, owner of 5star hookah lounge (and 5starhookah.com)
What needs to change?
Regardless of what kind of lounge it is, or what kinds of problems they may face, there are too many lounges in the US that provide low quality sessions, and attribute to a negative stigma being given to hookah in general. This is something that shouldn't be accepted, and something that absolutely needs to change. Bars need to offer a quality session, something that can be just as good if not better than what you could achieve at home. This can be achieved by using quality shisha, and taking proper care of the equipment being used when smoking. It may not be the cheapest option, but for someone that is a true lover of the hookah industry and wants to see it grow, it shouldn't be seen as a problem. For the industry to grow as a whole, it's something that absolutely has to happen. What can you do to help this though? Talk to your local lounge! If they aren't performing like they should, don't be afraid to ask why. Many lounge owners simply aren't aware of how to go about getting better brands, or why they should change. This may take some legwork on your end, but don't be afraid to ask them if they want to try some of your personal stash. Show them how beautiful that newer brands are, and why they should carry them. Blow them away, make them see that there's more to the world than the "staple three", and that it's not hard to get involved. Encourage them, and support them if you're lucky enough to have a lounge like this near you. We're all part of the hookah community, and that's why it's something I encourage everyone to do. As always, thanks for reading, and happy smokes!