Blowing smoke: Hookah lounge sparks conversations

WKU graduate, Quentin Walker exhales his blackberry-lemon flavored hookah at Cloud 9 in Bowling Green. Walker said he enjoys the atmosphere of Cloud 9. “I’ve probably spent 40 hours a week here,” Walker said, “I spend as much [money] here as I do on my rent.”

Paul Watson

He draws on the hose, forms an “o” with his mouth and spouts a string of billowing smoke rings. This is both Joshua Smith’s pastime and occupation.

Smith, the founder of Cloud 9 Hookah and a WKU alumnus is trying to take the stigma out of hookah, and after over a year of successful business, he said the future is bright.

“I don’t want to be OK,” Smith said. “I want to be the best.”

The lounge is lit with atmospheric lighting. The furniture is all soft black leather and local art hangs throughout the building.

Bowling Green sophomore Jacob Carter said he comes to Cloud 9 because of the great service.

“The owners are very engaging,” he said. “They are attentive and cool people to hang out with.”

These comments sound similar to what Smith said his vision for the business is.

“We want to take the image hookah has and put it in its proper context,” Smith said.

Smith’s journey toward the creation of Cloud 9 began in 2007, when he was first introduced to hookah. He said he had friends who smoked it and he wanted to blow thick smoke rings like them. After he and his friends became regular hookah smokers they began to throw “hookah parties” which they dubbed the “house of hookah.”

But Smith’s attitude towards hookah began to change when he traveled to Jordan for two years to study Arabic. In Jordan, he said, hookah was everywhere.

“I wanted to smoke everywhere,” he said. “I smoked every day.”

According to Smith, the hookah culture in Jordan is vastly different than that of America. He said in Jordan there are hookah lounges on every corner.

“They are all very café-like and people go there to talk sports, politics and religion and just relax,” Smith said.

He said that he found this to be in stark contrast to the hookah culture in America, which is generally associated with a club-type atmosphere.

When Smith returned to the United States, he began living in Virginia with his wife and began working at a hookah lounge there. Eventually rising to the position of district manager, Smith said Virginia was where his hobby became a passion.

“Virginia was where I developed all of my hookah knowledge,” he said.

Smith said he and his wife grew tired of living in Virginia and wanted to move back to Kentucky. So, in November of 2011 he began to work toward opening his own lounge with his friend Keenan Fish.

Smith signed the lease on the current location of the lounge, a 3,000-square-foot space on Broadway, on March 1, 2012. They committed to opening on April 13, 2012.

When the doors opened, the focus of the business was clear, Smith said.

“We were so excited to bring traditional hookah culture to an American context and build a business that will bring glory to God,” he said.

Smith’s religious convictions have factored greatly into the makeup of his business. He is passionate about his business being a clean, drug-free environment due to his strong Christian beliefs, he said.

“Hookah is so unique, but it is done badly so much,” Smith said. “Our stance is clear. We are an anti-drug establishment.”

Smith and his employees went to great lengths to make sure customers knew this.

“Our first few months we were open we had a sign on the door that said ‘STOP. If you are looking for spice or other drug paraphernalia, we don’t have any. You have come to the wrong place.’ And I can’t tell you how many people we saw walk up, read the sign and turn back and walk away.”

With the rise of hookah in America, there have been concerns about the health effects.

“A lot of people think hookah is less harmful but it’s not,” Catharine Steward, an employee at WKU Health Services, said. “A lot of college students start smoking in a social setting and the nicotine addiction grows from there.”

But Smith has also dealt with the health effects often associated with hookah.

“There is so much misinformation about hookah,” Smith said.

In a study last year by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, at an anonymous university in the Midwest, 22 percent or 438 of 2000 students said they had smoked hookah before. This data is consistent with the general trend of cigarette smoking being on the decline among young people but other forms of smoking, like hookah, being on the rise.

“We aren’t scientists, we aren’t doctors,” Smith said. “All we know is what our bodies tell us. People who do aerobic exercise and also smoke cigarettes report tightness in the chest and shortness of breath when exercising. People who only smoke hookah do not.”

Despite possible health effects, the owners of Cloud 9 said their clientele remains loyal. Smith and co-owner Keenan Fish said they believe they keep customers by emphasizing a focus on top-notch products, service and atmosphere.

“Quality and atmosphere is what makes Cloud 9,” Fish said. “So many businesses provide sub-par service and quality. We want to have superior service and quality.”

Smith said he believes good products and services are what bring business from far outside of Bowling Green.

“Cloud 9 has a huge range,” he said. “People come from Nashville and Louisville just to smoke at Cloud 9 and I love that. I want Bowling Green to be the place to go for hookah.”

According to Smith, business is good in Bowling Green and he doesn’t see that changing any time soon.

“I have no worries about business in Bowling Green,” Smith said. “We hope to expand in the coming years to Nashville and Louisville and then any other city that will have us.”