Hookah finds a home in Burnsville

Taha Hookah owner Mohamed Taha, standing, counts on family and friends to help run the business. From left, seated, are family friend Thomas Bungert and Taha’s cousins, Waleed Suliman and Wael Suliman. (Photo by John Gessner)

Mohamed Taha of Bloomington usually drove north to Columbia Heights when he wanted to smoke hookah while meeting and making friends.

The young entrepreneur took a gamble on bringing hookah culture closer to home, and it appears to have paid off.

The Sudan-born Taha opened Taha Hookah in June, the first indoor hookah lounge south of the river.

After having to turn away customers on busy Friday and Saturday nights, Taha expanded into 1,500 square feet of adjoining space that opened Aug. 19. That more than doubled the size of the lounge, located at 12010 County Road 11 in Burnsville, to 2,400 square feet and a capacity of up to 120 customers.

Located in a strip mall just south of Highway 13, Taha Hookah is one of four hookah lounges in the Twin Cities, Taha said. The other three — including Pyramid Cafe, his longtime hangout — are in Columbia Heights, he said.

“We need something out there, because I know there’s a lot of people in the suburbs that commute all the way to that side of town for hookah,” Taha said on a quiet Friday afternoon, before the rush of customers he promised would arrive later.

The smoking of flavored tobaccos through a water pipe, or hookah, often in a social setting, is centuries old but has grown more popular in Minnesota with new immigrant arrivals.

For Taha, who came to the United States in 1992, the hookah culture ingrained in his circle of family and friends is in part a reaction to faith traditions.

“Obviously, more Muslims really don’t go clubbing because they don’t drink, so hookah is more our social thing,” he said.

While hookah lounges in Minneapolis have been snuffed out by a tough city ordinance, Taha said, his Burnsville lounge is allowed because the city’s tobacco regulations on indoor smoking are no more stringent than the state’s.

Minnesota law allows lighting of tobacco products inside a tobacco shop for the purpose of “sampling” tobacco products, according to a Department of Health fact sheet. More than 90 percent of the shop’s gross revenue must come from the sale of tobacco products or smoking-related accessories.

Taha Hookah cannot sell prepared food under the law, and beverage sales are limited to sealed bottles and cans, said Taha, who has a city tobacco license.

Hookah is offered outdoors at the Mediterranean Cruise Cafe in Burnsville and at Ansari’s Mediterranean Grill and Lounge in Eagan, Taha said. Meanwhile, another hookah lounge has secured a city tobacco license in Burnsville — Ignite Hookah Lounge at 2552 Horizon Drive. It’s a competitor, Taha said, that he expects to open soon.

A 2005 graduate of Bloomington Kennedy High School, Taha has a degree in management information systems from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Growing up, he watched his immigrant father drive cab and own a convenience store and always wanted to follow his footsteps into business ownership.

Taha is now working full time as an IT contractor for Delta Air Lines while pursuing his dream in the hookah business. He’s the sole owner of Taha Hookah, which cousins Waleed Suliman and Wael Suliman of Bloomington help run.

“It costs a lot of money to operate — the product, the employees, the electricity, the rent, the ventilation,”  said Taha, who expanded into the former Natalya’s Gifts Boutique space. “It costs a lot of money to keep it going.”

The business has two lounge areas with six flat-screen TVs. Older customers prefer daytime and younger ones the evening, Taha said. Customers must be 18 to enter. The business, open daily from 2 p.m. to 1 a.m.,  checks IDs and hires security for busy Friday and Saturday nights, Taha said.

“We would like for you to dress to impress,” he said of the lounge’s loose dress code.

Hookah rental with tobacco is $15, or $20 for two people sharing, Taha said. The tobacco, known as shisha, is boiled in water, which kills most of the tar and nicotine, dried, and flavored with molasses and food extracts, he said.

“Literally any fruit you can think of,” said Taha, whose locally supplied product comes from the Middle East. “There’s literally thousands of flavors.”

The tobacco is placed in a bowl at the top of the hookah and heated with charcoal. The smoke is filtered through water in the bottom of the pipe. The smoker uses a hose with a disposable, individually wrapped mouthpiece known as a “mousetip,” Taha said.

“It’s very relaxing, honestly,” he said of the smoking experience. “A lot of people come in and they’re like, ‘Well, do I get a buzz, do I get a high, what’s going to happen if I smoke?’ ”

His answer is that hookah sure beats cigarettes.

“I can’t smoke cigarettes, but I can smoke hookah all day,” Taha said. “It’s softer, it’s filtered with the water, and it’s not harsh. It’s not that there is no nicotine and there is no tar, but it’s very minimal compared to cigarettes.”

Taha acknowledges, though, the voices warning that hookah is not safer than cigarettes. Those voices include the Centers for Disease Control and MayoClinic.com.

“At the end of the day, if you want to smoke, nobody’s going to stop you,” he said. “Tobacco keeps going up (in price), but people keep buying it.”