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Plans for a Hookah Bar in the South Bronx Spark Fear for Some Locals

By Patrick Wall | August 7, 2013 7:46am
 Two brothers are trying to convince a Bronx community board to grant them a liquor license for the upcoming hookah lounge.
Two brothers are trying to convince a Bronx community board to grant them a liquor license for the upcoming hookah lounge.
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LONGWOOD — The fruity scent of hookah smoke wafts from lounges across the city — from Inwood to Astoria to Bay Ridge — but few if any of the increasingly popular water-pipe bars, so far, have appeared in the South Bronx.

That could soon change as two brothers who own tobacco and pizza shops on Southern Boulevard prepare to open Pulse Hookah Bar and Lounge.

If they are successful, it will be despite the misgivings of the local community board, which held multiple hearings on the lounge’s alcohol license request and attached more than a dozen stipulations to its approval — prompting charges of obstruction and prejudice from the would-be lounge owners.

“It’s discriminatory action,” co-owner Shoaib Khan said in an interview last week. “They are making a hurdle in our way for no other reason than to give us a hard time.”

 Two brothers who own Ten 10 Smoke Shop and a Papa Johns franchise on Southern Boulevard hope to open a hookah lounge at the site.
Two brothers who own Ten 10 Smoke Shop and a Papa Johns franchise on Southern Boulevard hope to open a hookah lounge at the site.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

The board, however, rejects that claim, saying that its concerns relate strictly to health and safety and that it applied the same level of scrutiny to the hookah bar that it does to any new alcohol-serving establishment in an area that has long wrestled with rowdy and violent clubs.

“It’s nothing personal. It’s not being biased,” said Community Board 2 District Manager Rafael Salamanca Jr. “The community board is protecting the community.”

Still, Salamanca admitted, to certain board old-timers — and likely many Bronxites unaware of the new vogue for hookah among some young people — the idea of a bar where patrons puff on smoke-filled hoses can be disconcerting.

“This is all new to a lot of people,” he said.

Shoaib and Kaleem Khan opened Ten 10 Smoke Shop and a Papa John's Pizza franchise on the ground floor of 1010 Southern Blvd. in January. They recently sub-leased another storefront at the base of the brick apartment building to a salad and frozen yogurt shop.

They plan to open Pulse in a vacant space in the building between the pizza and smoke shops.

At the community board’s June meeting, members voted 14-9, with two abstentions, to recommend to the State Liquor Authority that it grant Pulse a beer and wine permit — on the condition that the owners agree in writing to 14 stipulations.

The agreement requires the owners, among other duties, to close the lounge nightly at 2 a.m. instead of 4 a.m., maintain three licensed security guards on site every evening and install soundproofing, security cameras, metal detectors and ID-card scanners.

During the vetting process, which involved two committee and two full-board meetings, the owners agreed to hire Archangel Security International to provide security.

Arnaldo Salinas, the firm’s president, said that while his guards patrol part of the East Village in Manhattan, where there are many hookah lounges, they have yet to encounter unruly hookah smokers. He called the board’s security requirements “overkill.”

“I’m in awe of this,” he said. The owners “literally had to bend over backwards just to get a beer and wine license.”

The owners suggested that the board’s seeming resistance to their lounge stemmed from ignorance or even prejudice against the practice of hookah smoking, which originated in the Middle East.

At the June 26 full-board meeting, one member asked whether the lounge would employ belly dancers, which elicited laughter from the audience.

“Basically, they’re doing racism,” co-owner Kaleem Khan said after the meeting.

Salamanca and other board members denied any cultural bias. (Salamanca also mentioned that he had smoked hookahs before.)

Instead, the board said its main worries revolved around the lounge's location — it would serve alcohol along a busy commercial corridor that abuts a high-crime zone, which police already flood with extra officers.

The board’s chronic clashes with local clubs — which have been the site of shootings, stabbings and drug busts over the years — has made it especially vigilant: in recent months, it set up a special alcohol-permit committee and started adding stipulations to its approvals.

Robert Crespo, chairman of the permit committee, said the questions asked of the Khan brothers and the security requirements set for them were standard for any new bar or lounge.

“They didn’t get any extra scrutiny,” he said.

The board's health committee also held a hearing on the potential risks of hookah smoking, but the permit committee focused on the alcohol-license request, Crespo said.

Businesses in New York City do not need a special permit to serve hookahs. However, because of city and state indoor-smoking bans, the mixtures in the hookahs cannot contain tobacco.

Noting those rules, Shoaib Khan objected to the board’s inquiry into the health hazards of hookah smoking.

“If New York State has allowed this thing,” he said in an interview, “then who the hell [is the board] to ask me to explain it?”