2 Manassas Entrepreneurs Want to Change the Way You Think about Hookah
MANASSAS, Va. – Two young men are hoping their dreams of starting a business will go up in smoke.
John Simo, of Manassas Park, and Chris Foster, of Manassas, both 22, are betting people will pay for a quality experience while smoking hookah, which is a large water pipe that accommodate two to three smokers at a time, and shisha, the flavored tobacco that is smoked from the pipe.
Popular in the Middle East, the two Northern Virginia entrepreneurs want to bring the time-old tradition to events, parties and weddings, just like a catering service would bring tasty treats. The idea is to bring small tables to parties where people can sit around the large, upright Hookah and enjoy themselves.
Simo is fresh out of college where he studied business management. Along with Foster, they began smoking hookah when they were in high school together.
While there are many bars in our area where people can smoke hookah, Simo says they’re lacking atmosphere, and adds they could do better.
“If you are a foodie and you love Gordon Ramsay, imagine walking into an IHOP,” quipped Simo. “Everything from the food to the quality of the service can be done better. We want to make it an experience not to just try a hookah, but to have a great night and connect with others.”
Simo and Foster don’t want to open a hookah bar, but instead have decided to operate Ember Hookah the same way a caterer would, serving clients at small to medium-sized events. Their business launches this month.
Both got advice from their fellow entrepreneurs when they pitched their idea at a recent session of 1 Million Cups Prince William. The group urged them to, just like any winemaker would do, educate people on the making of their product.
Simo likes to talk about the quality of the ingredients that go into his shisha soaked in molasses, which comes in flavors like peach and blue gumball, and something that tastes sort of like Coca-Cola.
Just like any wine drinker, Foster says you have to have a refined sense of taste to truly enjoy the experience.
“Having a good pallet through your nose to smell what good flavors mixed together, and what flavors don’t go together well,” he said? “It’s almost culinary.”
The duo hopes to contract with event planners, brides and grooms, or with those having private parties inside of their homes, to allow them to bring their hookah pipes and flavored shisha – a product Simo makes himself – and to set up small tables where people can sit, smoke, and enjoy.
They say hookah smoke doesn’t stick to your clothes like cigarette or cigar smoke. But during their time in the entrepreneurial hot seat, the two did hear objections about the overall health risks of smoking and about what negative impact it could have on their start-up business.
“People in the Middle East start smoking hookah at age 12, and some of them live until they are 100 years old, so clearly it’s not killing them,” said Foster. “The whole [1 Million Cups] meeting, people were looking at the hookah and saying ‘it’s a bong… bong… bong’ and a I guess people want to smoke a bong.”
Simo handles the business side of things while Foster is the creative marketing talent, focusing on the look of the website, as well as the presentation of the hookahs and tables at their events.
Their target customer has been college students ages 18 to 25, but as they start their venture in the Northern Virginia suburbs they’ll be looking for a more refined customer.