New Hookah Lounge Offers Alternative Social Opportunities

AJ Dome / Washburn Review

Sammy Zalloum, owner and operator of Genie Hookah Lounge, wants to provide Topeka-area kids with an alternative social experience.

“Topeka needed a hookah house,” Zalloum said. “It’s better for Topeka because it doesn’t get kids under the influence, and instead of going to Lawrence for the same thing, they can stay here and support Topeka. We’re supporting the local economy, and providing a good place for kids to come and be social.”

Zalloum, a former IHOP manager, opened Genie Hookah Lounge on Thursday, June 21. The lounge is located at 4009 SW 21st Street, next to Speck’s Bar and Grill on the corner of 21st and Gage. Their sign is a little hard to read from the street, but Chris Alejos, Zalloum’s contractor and business consultant, says that’s unavoidable.

“Right on Wanamaker, you’ll notice that those businesses don’t have signs out by the road,” Alejos said. “You can’t put any new signs up right next to Wanamaker. I guess 21st is the same way, so we’re stuck for awhile with our little sign.”

To help with advertising, some volunteers have set up a website for Genie Hookah House. Drew Stratman and Tori Tipton, a young local couple, created the site for Zalloum, paying for it out of their own pocket.

“We just felt like helping out,” Tipton said. “Sammy’s super awesome, and we’re happy that he chose to start a hookah place in Topeka.”

Tipton and Stratman are also working on sweetening the deal for incoming customers.

“We had an idea for punch cards, maybe coupons of some sort,” Stratman said. “Lots of people are choosing to come back anyway, why not give them some incentives to return?”

As of Friday, June 29, Genie Hookah House started offering a 10% discount for students who show their school ID. The lounge offers free wi-fi access as well, and Zalloum plans on being open for breakfast when school is in session.

“Kids can escape the cold winters with hot coffee and some baclava,” Zalloum said.

Zalloum chose a hookah lounge because “Topeka didn’t have one, and it’s a very relaxing place.” A hookah is a device used to smoke a flavored tobacco called shisha. The smoke passes through water kept in a basin, cooling and purifying it. The design of a hookah allows for social smoking, and shisha is not as harmful to a person as cigarettes or cigars.

The hookah lounge is located within walking distance of Washburn, and offers enough parking for at least 60 cars. According to Alejos, that’s more than enough space.

“The other night, I slipped out the back just to look around,” Alejos said. “Every table and chair inside was taken, and there were people standing, with their hookahs sitting on the edges of tables. When I looked out back, there was at least 20 to 25 parking spots still left open, and this place was full.”

The lounge will hold up to 97 people in the main room, with another 40 possible in the party room on the side of the building. The party room is not open yet, but when it’s finished, Zalloum and Alejos are entertaining many different ideas to use the space.

“Live bands, DJs, hosting events… it’s all wide open at this point,” Alejos said.

According to Zalloum and Alejos, business is “moving well,” with a wide range of people enjoying the social atmosphere of the lounge.

“On Wednesday we had students coming in from KU, who lived in Lawrence,” Alejos said. “That’s a good plus. They’ve got their hookah bars in Lawrence, but they’re willing to make that drive over.”

“You know the secret of why that is?” Zalloum asks. “I know why. It’s because here we don’t have cover charges.”

Zalloum wants to retain customers, and make them feel welcome.

“When I designed the menu and the prices, I thought about being a student,” Zalloum said. “As a student, your money is limited. Since this place was built for the student, I want to be fair to them. I don’t want to be greedy, and I want more customers coming in, with no cover charges and no hidden fees.”

For Zalloum, it’s about more than just bringing in students. It’s about respecting his community and providing for his family.

“I like to build a trust between the customer and me,” Zalloum said. “I’m not asking for much. I just want to support my four kids, for them to go to college and get a good education. I’m not looking to buy a $6 million house, or to drive a Rolls-Royce… I just want a decent American life.”

Zalloum’s pursuit of a decent American life is helping not only Alejos, who works as a waiter in the lounge, setting up hookahs and serving drinks to customers, but also for Rachael Ginzel, the lounge’s official waitress.

“I knew Rachael even before she was born,” Alejos said. “When we needed help with this place, she was my first choice.”

Ginzel, a prospective Washburn student and Topeka native, feels at home in Genie Hookah Lounge.

“This is the perfect place for kids to come, work on their stuff and just hang out,” Ginzel said. “And Sammy’s the best boss I’ve ever had. He’s very outgoing, and treats everyone like family.”

Genie Hookah House is open Sunday through Thursday from 5pm to 1am, and Fridays and Saturdays from 5pm to 2am. Along with a growing shisha menu, they serve food and drinks as well. The drinks range from soda to international teas and coffees.

Their food section is small right now, but the desserts are most popular–baclava being the crowd favorite. Grape leaves are served as an appetizer; they are actual grapevine leaves, dipped in a special sauce. Rice is rolled into them, along with some interesting spices, and served with lemon. They are quite an interesting palette-pleaser.

For more information, check out Genie Hookah’s website, at www.geniehookahhouse.org.