GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) – Army sergeants Jared Kassaw and Matthew Blum spent many evenings relaxing with their comrades over a hookah while serving two tours of duty in the Middle East.

They say many soldiers currently serving overseas enjoy the area’s cultural pastime of hookah smoking as a way to unwind after a long day of violent conflict.

“Rank didn’t mean anything around a hookah,” Kassaw said recently, sitting inside the Grand Junction Hookah Lounge, a business he and Blum opened two months ago in the Eastgate Shopping Center. “Sitting around the hookah helped us talk about what had happened that day …. (We’d) talk about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and it strengthened our relationships and made our bonds stronger.”

One of those late-night conversations turned into a brainstorming session about what kind of business would do well back home in the Grand Valley.

“We decided this would be a cool thing for military vets in the U.S.,” Kassaw said.

They opened their new business Oct. 22, and those familiar with the idea of smoking tobacco at a hookah lounge were excited to have another location in which to hang out.

Others, not so familiar, were opposed to the idea of that kind of business opening in their community.

“They’d come here and say, ‘You hippies are smoking pot in there,’ ” Kassaw said with a laugh. “In Grand Junction, it has been extremely hard because a lot of people don’t understand what hookahs are.”

Hookah lounges are not fronts for legalized marijuana sales, as some may think, Kassaw said, adding, “Matt and I both have zero tolerance here for that.”

The lounge sells nicotine or non-nicotine tobacco, which is smoked in a hookah, a Middle Eastern pipe with several connecting hoses so that multiple people can smoke at the same time.

The lounge is not a bar. No alcohol is served. Rather, soda, coffee and energy drinks are available.

“To me, a hookah lounge is just a place you can relax and talk. It’s just an enjoyable place,” Kassaw said.

Despite the provincial misunderstandings, the lounge was starting to enjoy a profit just six weeks after opening, Kassaw said. But soon after, he and Blum were forced to close temporarily so they could renovate the ventilation system to meet Mesa County code. The remodel also included new restroom facilities and a larger work area for the employees.

The lounge was able to reopen Feb. 11.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)


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