Cigar, hookah lounge owners say if they can’t sell weed, new smoking license makes no sense

While some Chicago smoke shops are interested in allowing pot smoking, proposed restrictions are unworkable.

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Brandon Wator, 26, smokes a hookah Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 at Arabia Cafe Hookah Lounge in Noble Square.

Brandon Wator, 26, smokes a hookah Wednesday night at Arabia Cafe Hookah Lounge in Noble Square.

Matthew Hendrickson/Sun-Times

Ever since legal weed became the law of the land in Illinois, hookah lounge owner Mounir Zekkari said he’s been getting phone calls from customers curious about whether his BYOB policy applies to their weed, as well as their wine.

“They are wondering if they can bring it to smoke here, and we tell them no,” said Zekkari, who owns Arabia Cafe Hookah Lounge at 1046 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Noble Square.

Zekkari said the vast majority of his customers, most of whom are in their 20s or 30s, bring their own alcoholic drinks when they gather in small groups to share a hookah pipe. He charges the imbibers a $5 corkage fee and said he could foresee doing something similar with marijuana — but the fee would have to be higher.

“I think $30,” he said. “Because of the smell. I’d have to deal with the smell. I’m not sure all of our customers would like that.”

On Wednesday Jan. 15, 2020, Arabia Cafe Hookah Lounge owner Mounir Zekkari smokes a hookah.

On Wednesday Jan. 15, 2020, Arabia Cafe Hookah Lounge owner Mounir Zekkari smokes a hookah.

Matthew Hendrickson/Sun-Times

Zekkari said he has a basement that he would consider converting to a marijuana lounge, separating pot smokers from those who only want to smoke a hookah, but the expense of converting the new space and paying the $4,400 two-year license the city has proposed doesn’t make financial sense.

“If they were to give us a license to sell it that would be better,” he said.

Like other owners, Zekkari said he would be open to a license that would restrict him to selling smaller amounts or individual sized portions of edible products. That, however, would require a change in state law — which lawmakers have said is unlikely.

The city’s proposed ordinance, before it was met with a wall of aldermanic opposition, would also require the businesses to have a ventilation system and make 80% of their revenue from tobacco sales.

Those requirements mirrored what was written into the amendment to the Smoke Free Illinois Act approved last year allowing cannabis consumption in a very limited number of places. The law grandfathers existing shops but requires new ones to be the sole occupant of a standalone building.

The state restrictions, some aldermen said, made the new licenses unworkable. The aldermen also complained that of the more than 42 smoke shops in the city, very few are located on the South or West sides, leaving residents few places to smoke if they live in buildings where a landlord prohibits it.

Ron Hammond, 42, of Aurora enjoys a cigar Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 at Windy City Cigar Lounge in Bronzeville while talking with friends.

Ron Hammond, 42, of Aurora enjoys a cigar Wednesday at Windy City Cigar Lounge in Bronzeville while talking with friends.

Matthew Hendrickson/Sun-Times

The proposed fees and ban on selling pot are frustrating to Anthony Powell, owner of Windy City Cigar Lounge in Bronzeville, which occupies two storefronts at 4310 and 4312 S. Prairie Ave.

He would like an opportunity to cater to both types of customers.

His current clientele can spend hours in the shop after making a selection from his humidor and often enjoy their cigar while watching sports on one of the lounge’s televisions, ordering in food or bringing their own drinks.

“We definitely thought about it,” Powell said when he first learned of the ordinance. “But just having someone walk in off the street with their own product, even if I charged $10, I still have to pay for the heat and the electricity and the fees.

“It doesn’t add up.”

Powell said he currently uses his second storefront as overflow space when his store’s main cigar lounge gets full.

“I thought I could open a new place in the second space, but if we can’t sell [marijuana], it doesn’t make financial sense for us.

Would pot smokers and cigar smokers mix?

“I’m sure some of our clients smoke [marijuana] too, but we have others that don’t, and for their job or something, they aren’t going to want to be around it,” he said.

Windy City Cigar Lounge owner Anthony Powell stands in his store’s humidor Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 in Bronzeville.

Windy City Cigar Lounge owner Anthony Powell stands in his store’s humidor Wednesday in Bronzeville.

Matthew Hendrickson/Sun-Times

Powell said he doesn’t have enough capital to invest in a dispensary license, but would also be open to getting a limited license that would allow him to only sell certain marijuana products, such as pre-rolled joints.

“Since there are so few of these stores, we’d like to be able to give our input,” Powell said.

Downtown, Billy O’Hara, owner of Jack Schwartz Importer — the nearly century-old cigar shop in the lobby of the Chicago Board of Trade,141 W. Jackson Blvd. — said he has no interest in getting into the marijuana business.

“I don’t really see it for my clientele,” O’Hara said in a deep, gruff voice when reached by phone last week. “They don’t want to goback to work smelling like pot.”

For O’Hara, more than money, it’s about atmosphere and providing customers who like cigar culture a place to enjoy a premium product.

“It’s a branding thing,” he said simply.

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