LAKEVIEW — The confusion of people walking by new Lakeview shop Smoque was palpable.
Judging from the open space, lounge chairs and the bar, it's obviously not another location of popular Irving Park barbecue restaurant Smoque. This Smoque Vapor Lounge, at 2900 N. Broadway Ave. near Surf, opened last Thursday and sells electronic cigarettes and their flavor refills.
"I have never even heard of that," passerby Haley Africano said.
A place just for smoking? Sort of. It's water vapor, not smoke, said owner Jared Yucht. And before you ask, yes — he knows there's "a huge stigma" around smoking.
"People have to come in and see what it's all about before passing judgment," he said.
Yucht and his two college buddies, all smokers trying to quit by switching to e-cigs, decided to start the lounge after facing frustrations in the current e-cig market. The flavors weren't that good. They were dubious of what was actually in the liquids, which were bought online or shipped from outside the country. They ended up wasting money buying flavors they didn't like.
"We weren't satisfied with what was out there," he said.
Smoque hopes to solve those problems. Visitors can test out 30 different flavors, which range from "MarboSmoque" — meant to mimic Marlboros — to Apple Breeze and Cinnapear. Yucht's self-declared "foodie" partner created all of the flavors himself with food-grade ingredients, so they know what's in them, he said.
Despite the quizzical looks Smoque received, e-cigarettes in general have been gaining in popularity as an alternative to smoking without the tar and tobacco of cigarettes — but with the smoking feeling. In the U.S., sales last year were between $300 million and $500 million, double the sales from the year before.
The devices look almost like fancy pens and contain a combination of liquid ingredients, including varying levels of nicotine and a chemical similar to ones in asthma inhalers. The electronic part, in the form of a battery or USB connection, heats the liquid to release a vapor that looks similar to smoke.
Legally, they can't be called "smoking cessation" tools, or ways to quit cigarettes, and the FDA is still out on the health impacts. But in practice, many regular smokers see it as a way to quit the cig, like Yucht and his two partners do. Those smokers looking to give up the habit are a big target for Smoque, though non-smokers have been interested in them too, Yucht said.
Many people walked briskly past Ivy Weber, a 19-year-old employee who was tasked with standing outside the store Friday to hand out disposable e-cigarettes. But Lisa Kimmey, who has been trying to stop smoking for 10 years, was tempted to give it shot.
"I've tried everything," she said. "I even had my brain lasered."
In spite of the coffee tables, free coffee and puffy chairs, "lounge" is a bit of a misnomer for Smoque. It's not like a hookah lounge, where people pay to hang out. It's more of a store for Smoque's e-cigarette liquids — the atmosphere is for people to feel comfortable while sampling the flavors.
To have a bar dedicated to smoking "is not the idea," Yucht said. "but if people want to come and hang out, that's fine."
The liquids cost $16.99 for 30 milliliters. Each bottle would last a heavy smoker two weeks, Yucht said, defining "heavy" as at least a pack a day. E-cigarette devices cost anywhere from $20 to $100.
He's not worried that the number of smokers are dwindling; 20 percent of adults are still smokers, he said.
"People like to smoke," he said. "Since the dawn of time."