By Jason Riggs
A half-block before you reach Dandana, a hookah lounge in south Astoria, Queens, you can smell the sweet aroma of apple-flavored tobacco wafting out the door as people walk in and out. Inside, purple velvet drapes adorn the massive windows that separate the richly ornamented dining room from the sidewalk patio. The interior has handcrafted brass pots from Egypt and lined with dark wood benches topped with jewel-colored silk pillows. Dimly lit chandeliers lend a golden glow to the smoke-filled lounge.
Everything about Dandana is designed to evoke an idyllic Arabian night, everything, that is, until your eyes adjust to the haze and spot the Brazilian flag and a Mexican sombrero hanging from one wall. With these objects Dandana pays homage to its Astoria location, one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in New York City. The menu, too, deviates from the typical hookah lounge fare, offering eclectic dishes at moderate prices, including a Caesar salad for $7.95, smoked salmon and tomato on a French baguette for $7.00, as well as the more typical grilled kofta kebab for $12.00 and falafel for $4.00. While most traditional hookah lounges do not serve alcohol, Dandana offers pricey cocktails. Even its location on Broadway and 43rd St. in Astoria, six-blocks from Little Egypt, the Middle-Eastern enclave on Steinway Street that has 13 hookah bars located in a one-block stretch, sets Dandana apart.
Maged M. Ahafik, the owner of Dandana, deliberately broke the rigid hookah-lounge mold to create an establishment aimed at attracting both Middle Eastern customers and young professionals from the neighborhood. The “customer makeup is mixed with roughly half coming from Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco and the other half coming from all over,” says Vesna Letic, a waitress at Dandana, who hails from Serbia.
Ahafik, who emigrated from Egypt in 1980, opened Dandana in 2005 after his first café in lower Manhattan was forced to close when his10-year lease expired and the landlord raised the rent. Ahafik took advantage of the lower rents in Astoria and chose “a good corner location with lots of parking,” he says, and a location easily accessible both to Little Egypt and its more diverse neighbors.
Shisha, a fruit-flavored tobacco smoked in ornate hookah water pipes, is the main attraction at Dandana and other hookah lounges and appears on its menu along with food and drink. The price for a pipe-full runs $10 to $15, depending on which fruit flavor of Shisha, and hookah orders account for 40 percent of Dandana’s business, Ahafik says.
On weeknights, the lounge exudes a cozy atmosphere; often times, you can see the friendly wait staff sitting at customers’ tables, chatting with them.
What makes Dandana stand apart —and what has made it controversial among nearby hookah establishments—is that it serves alcohol. When Dandana first opened, Ahafik said, it was one of the first hookah lounges in Astoria with a full bar.
“They are doing it for the money and should be ashamed to serve alcohol, which is against the Muslim faith,” says Hany Mahmoud, an employee with Layali Beirut, a competitor in Little Egypt. “Competitors who are adding bars to their hookah lounges are increasing competition.”
Cocktails, which Ahafik says account for 35 percent of the lounge’s sales, have become a key to its business. At prices north of $10 for a cocktail, liquor is among the lounge’s most expensive offerings.
Most of the lounge’s profits are made on the weekends, when Dandana transforms into a nightclub, complete with disco ball, DJ, belly dancers, and a couple of bouncers manning the velvet-roped entrance.
Still, Ahafik says the economic slump has taken its toll. “It’s hard to make a living when customers come in on a Friday or Saturday night, take a table and order one hookah, a drink and stay all night. How can I make a profit like that?”
Local realtors estimate rent of a corner store of Dandana’s size at about $4,000 a month. Based on the figures provided by Ahafik, Dandana’s annual revenue is roughly $500,000 annually.
Even if the economy recovers, Dandana faces another threat. In 2003, the city passed the New York City Smoke-Free Air Act, followed a few months later by the New York State Indoor Air Act. Just how they apply to hookah lounges is not precisely clear. Although shisha does contain tobacco, “We aren’t ticketing hookah bars because, as far as I know, there is no tobacco in it,” says one officer with the 114 precinct in Astoria.
The police may not be enforcing the clean air act, but the Health Department is. According to Ahafik, “Fines have been frequent. They don’t know what they are doing. They come from the Health Department and make it up as they go. Even the judge doesn’t know what to decide.”
Five months ago, Dandana was issued four tickets by a health inspector, “one for each customer at the table where a hookah was being smoked at an outside table,” says Letic, the waitress. The tickets were for smoking under the awning at an outside table. The owner paid for one ticket in court and the remaining three were dropped. Nahla Khalil, who lives in Forest Hills and is a longtime Dandana customer, is outraged. “They shouldn’t ban it if we are not bothering other people,” he says. “We are all here to smoke anyway.”
There are no official statistics on the number of violations issued to hookah lounges, according to a representative of the mayor’s office.
The uncertainty is only likely to increase if the Bloomberg administration succeeds in expanding the smoking ban to city beaches, parks and outdoor malls, which may lead to more defined and stringent restrictions imposed on hookah lounges.
In the short term, though, Dandana’s unconventional hookah strategy has been successful. Ahafik turned a profit within just a few years after opening his doors. And even if customers are spending less now, they still keep coming.