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Alumnus uses hookah to offer students a relaxing getaway

On the corner of Fowler Avenue and 56th Street sits a unique USF hang-out in an obscure shopping center. The Meridian Hookah Lounge is exploding in popularity, becoming a local nighttime gathering spot for a diverse group of USF students. The Meridian offers a relaxing atmosphere conveniently located just blocks from campus. The tranquil ambiance, dimly lit with black lights and soft yellow bulbs, offers a place for students to relax after a strenuous day. This new entertainment venue presents a variety of activities, including hookah smoking, music and a fully equipped coffee shop.

Owner Marc Karimi became a USF alumnus in May 2004. His degree in financing, along with experience at an investment banking firm (which he acquired from the USF Career Office), prepared him for the struggles of owning his own business. “Accounting classes at USF really helped me with my business,” Karimi said.

The business plan for the Hookah Lounge began as Karimi’s honors thesis. “I got an A” he said. Karimi said he wanted to create a local hang-out where students could meet people in the comfort of their community.

“My goal was to attract young adults because there is no place to hang out when you’re too young to drink without those embarrassing ‘x’s on your hands.”

So the beginning of the fall 2004 semester initiated the hookah trend that is sweeping USF.

“I was reading articles about similar ventures across the country,” Karimi said, “so I was expecting minimal success but not this quickly!”

As the Meridian Hookah Lounge and other similar ventures become increasingly popular in the United States, some Americans are becoming sheesha enthusiasts. But most are unaware of this sticky form of tobacco and steer clear. Sheesha, Karimi said, is nothing like cigarette tobacco which most students are familiar with. Sheesha originated in the Middle-East, but the plant used at the Meridian is grown in Virginia.

“The tobacco is mixed with flavored syrup,” which is how sheesha is created. The Meridian carries it in a variety of flavors, from savory jasmine and mint to sweet peach and banana,”

The amount of nicotine in tobacco is determined by the nitrogen in the soil.” said Karimi. “There is much less nitrogen in the sheesha soil, so there is only a small fraction of nicotine.””Because the tobacco used for sheesha is a much higher quality, there are no additives in the sheesha like there are in cigarettes: they’re incomparable,” Karimi said. “Cigarettes have additives to make them taste better. Sheesha is naturally nice-tasting.”

The hookah is the primary tool for the sheesha. The coals above the sheesh allow the tobacco to “bake”, so the water evaporates and mixes with light smoke. Because the sheesha doesn’t burn directly like cigarette tobacco, the smoker is inhaling less tobacco.

Karimi isn’t encouraging students to adopt a smoking habit, but “this is much less harmful than a cigarette” and is often the preferred option.

Karimi even employs USF students to run his business. “The seven people that work here are like a family. This place couldn’t be what it is without them.” Karimi said.

Karimi offers these students the chance to apply the skills they are learning at USF in the business world so “they can use these principles immediately.”

Sophomore Rob Lester is one of these students.

“I have been working at The Meridian since its second week of business, and because I get to participate in the professional aspects of the Hookah Lounge, I feel like I’m learning business skills,” Lester said. “This business caters specifically to USF students, and its popularity is spreading through word-of-mouth.”

The Hookah Lounge is a relatively small, one-room setting, conducive to unwinding after a long day at school. Patrons sit on round sofas where they can comfortably share a hookah with other smokers. The semicircular seating arrangement encourages conversation among the different groups of people. The art on the walls is distinctive and simplistic, and sets the tone for the environment. The stage, which is the setting for weekly live music, rests in the back corner of the room.

The Hookah Lounge attracts an assortment of patrons who enjoy this setting. Freshman Andrew Foy visits every Tuesday.

“I had never inhaled anything in my life. One day, I came in and just started smoking. This is a great place to get away from everything. The smoke is not addictive, but the atmosphere is.”

The cover price ranges from $7 to $10, depending on the night, and includes “all-you-can-smoke” sheesha.