A long haul: Hookah lounge opens after seven years of trying

Milford’s first hookah lounge took a long time to open. Owner Sammer “Sam” Karout said with a smile, “It almost killed me.” After about seven years of zoning issues, court battles and lots of renovations, Karout’s Olive Tree Hookah Lounge opened Jan. 16.

Karout has owned the Olive Tree, a restaurant and grocery story offering Middle Eastern cuisine and international food items, on Bridgeport Avenue since 2008. He briefly operated the Olive Tree Hookah Lounge in 2009 before the city’s health department shut it down, citing the fact that smoking was taking place inside the business. The state health department later amended the shutdown order — twice — sort of allowing him to open, but that left Karout petitioning the Planning & Zoning Board for a special exception to reopen his doors.

At one point all those years ago, it looked as if Karout had gotten P&Z approval to open the lounge, but he lost his bid because of a technicality in the board’s voting process.

The small business was steeped in controversy, from parking spaces to health issues. Former Milford Health Director Andrew Dennis McBride opposed the lounge, saying that smoking a hookah is just as dangerous as smoking cigarettes. He and other health officials lobbied against the hookah lounge reopening.

As all this was taking place in Milford, a group of legislators was working to stop hookah lounges from opening in the state with a bill to ban Connecticut hookah lounges altogether. That bill ultimately died, however.

It was 2012 when Karout finally got the Planning and Zoning Board permission he had been fighting for to open the hookah lounge next to his existing business.

So it was a long haul for this local businessman, a resident of Orange with three children.

Since getting the okay to open at the end of 2012, Karout has been running his existing restaurant while making some city-required changes in the lounge. He installed a ventilation system, built an additional exit — which he said required a considerable about of money and time — and made cosmetic changes inside, with an eye toward a Mediterranean look and feel.

“Welcome to Milford's only Hookah Lounge, the Olive Tree Hookah Lounge,” his business website states. “Enjoy the flavors, sights, and sounds of a Mediterranean paradise, as you relax, surrounded by music, and enjoy one of 20 varieties of Shisha, in our one-of-a-kind lounge.”

According to the Olive Tree website, the business is open seven nights a week. People pay $20 to $35 to smoke a hookah. No food or beverage is served, but people may bring their own, or order from the Olive Tree Restaurant next door. Patrons must be 18 years of age or older to visit Olive Tree Hookah Lounge.

Though culturally rooted in North Africa, the Middle East and areas of Southeast Asia, hookah lounges have been growing in popularity in the United States since the early 1990s, according to the World Health Organization.

Hookahs are decorative water pipes. Servers prepare shisha, which are blends of tobacco, fruits and other flavors, on top of the hookah and cover it with a sheet of foil. Patrons then smoke it in a social setting.

Karout said the business is a place to relax and socialize, and he’s argued over the years that he aims to make the hookah experience as safe as can be. The hoses used on the hookahs are disposable, and most of the blends used here are tobacco free, he said.

He’s happy the place is finally opened, but he said it will take some time to build the business — years of battling took a toll financially, he said.

“I didn’t give up,” he said. “It became personal.”

State Rep. Kim Rose, whom Karout praises for helping him wade through some legislative issues, said she’s happy to see a small business finally open.

“It was a long road, and costly,” Rose said.