New Business: Hookah lounge lights up in Dover

Kartik Patel, 26, opened Oasis Hookah Lounge on 4115 N. Dupont Hwy in Dover in early March. Mr. Patel says the lounge offers “traditional Shisha:” tobacco, molasses and a glycerin mix on coconut coals. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — During his college career at Temple University, 26-year-old Kartik Patel would often spend a lot of time “hanging out at hookah lounges.” Although they were enjoyed by their patrons, he found many of them to be “sketchy” and in various states of disrepair. Shortly after graduating, he thought to himself: “I could do this even better if I had the chance.”

“I grew up in Smyrna and in this general area there isn’t a ton of cool places for people to just hang out,” said Mr. Patel. “Mostly it’s just going to bars, which isn’t great if you have to drive home.”

Sensing opportunity in Dover, Mr. Patel began the arduous process of hunting down a location for a hookah bar. Settling on a storefront on 4115 N Dupont Hwy in Dover, he opened Oasis Hookah Lounge in early March.

“Dover is our capital, it has all our legislative buildings, Dover Downs and the Air Force Base — there’s just a lot going on,” said Mr. Patel. “But I feel like for the younger generation to really enjoy it, they want to go out and do stuff. In general, I think my generation is a little less materialistic and more focused on having experiences. Growing up around here, on the weekends so many people would just end up going to Philadelphia. I think a lounge like this brings a cool experience to Dover.”

Set up as a private club — in a model similar to cigar lounges or golf clubs — Mr. Patel says every customer becomes a part of the club when they enter by filling out a simple form. The membership demonstrates that customers consent to being in an establishment where tobacco is being smoked, but also gives them the opportunity to attend quarterly meetings and help decide how revenue the business generates can be used to improve it, Mr. Patel explains.

The lounge is open from Monday to Wednesday from 8 to 10 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday a DJ plays dance music and there’s a cover charge of $5 before 10 p.m. and $10 after 10 p.m., says Mr. Patel.

“As far as our hookahs, we do traditional Shisha with tobacco, molasses and a glycerin mix — that goes on all-natural coconut coals and is filtered through water. It lasts about 45 minutes,” he added.

Warm reception

True to his prediction, a younger crowd has given his business a warm reception claims Mr. Patel.

“Our grand opening was great, we had a line out the door,” he said. “We decided to market exclusively to Delaware State University students through Instragram and that really got the word out. Most weekend nights we’re at capacity after 10 p.m. The club holds about 60 people and we have seating for 52. Most people are up dancing though, having a great time.”

Closely logging his demographic data, he says 61 percent of his customers are from ages 18-24, followed by 31 percent in the 25-34 range. Most of his customers are college students and service members from Dover Air Force Base, Mr. Patel says. Incidentally, his staff of eight are also Delaware State University students.

For more information, visit _oasislounge_ on Instagram, @oasisdover on Facebook or call (302) 659-5084.

Barrier to entry

Though he feels he’s found a niche and is on a path to success, there were — and continue to be — a number of obstacles for him to overcome, claims Mr. Patel.

As a hookah lounge, the first hurdle to overcome was the Indoor Clean Air Act, which outlines the regulations for people smoking in business establishments. This regulation was the reason Mr. Patel instituted a private club model.

“This way everyone here agrees that they’re okay with the smoke,” he said. “We do also have a huge smoke eater set up too, so it’s not like all smoggy in here — people still have plenty of clean air to breathe.”

In the scouting process for a location, Mr. Patel said it was surprising to be turned away from vacant rental space because of his business type.

“We were looking at a few commercial spots a bit closer to Delaware State University and we were actually denied because the owners were worried that a lounge like this would bring trouble to the area,” he said. “That made things a little tricky.”

The biggest and most unwelcome barrier came as a last minute surprise, says Mr. Patel. A bill that passed the state’s House of Representatives and Senate last week will bring the smoking age in the state from 18 to 21. Currently, the bill is on its way to Gov. John Carney’s desk and is expected to be signed into law sometime this week.

“We’ll need to pivot to selling alcohol and becoming more of a bar just to stay afloat,” said Mr. Patel. “That’s something I just didn’t want to do because it draws a certain type of crowd. I was looking to create a lounge atmosphere, not a bar one. We’re open until 2 a.m. and with alcohol in the mix, that can sometimes bring trouble with it.”

Aware that similar proposals were popping up around the county, Mr. Patel says the local legislation came as an unpleasant surprise.

“I saw that they’d passed a bill like this in Hawaii and New Jersey, but I honestly didn’t think Delaware was taking it very serious,” he said. “But, just as I was getting ready to have my grand opening, legislators started pushing it and Gov. Carney announced his support.”

Since the core of his customers fall into the 18-24 age group, he feels the business will suffer if he doesn’t pursue other sources of revenue.

While he acknowledged smoking tobacco is not a healthy activity, he feels strongly adults should have the discretion to consume the substance if they decide to.

“It’s true that it’s not good for your health, it’s smoking,” he said. “But it’s like eating too much. Are we going to ban sugar and soda? Obesity is an even bigger problem right now — cardiovascular health is the No. 1 issue in this country.”

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