Hookah Cafes Offer Sweet Tobacco, but They’re Giving Police Headaches

Times Staff Writer

With hip-hop music providing the soundtrack, customers at the Laziz Cafe in Garden Grove pull 3-foot hoses to their lips, inhale the sweet-flavored tobacco smoke from hookah pipes and blow smoke rings into the air.

“It’s a chill place,” said owner Sam Mirza. “People come here to relax from a day at work.”

Sometimes, though, Mirza said, he has to call police when he sees people drinking in the parking lot or when large crowds gather outside and won’t leave.


Garden Grove and Anaheim officials say hookah cafes are taking too much police time as noise, fights and minors’ drinking and smoking generate hundreds of calls. City councils in both cities have proposed regulations targeting hookah businesses.

Hookah cafe owners say only a few cause problems, and they shouldn’t all have to pay the price.

Anaheim, with a large Middle Eastern community, is the Southern California hub for hookahs, but the cafes have jumped from an ethnic tradition to a trendy indulgence. In the last five years, the number of hookah cafes in Anaheim has jumped from one to 11, and they also have opened in Westwood and Burbank.

At the cafes, tobacco is served in dozens of flavors, including mango, black licorice, pina colada and strawberry, the most popular.

Once patrons pick a flavor, a metal and glass water pipe as tall as the table is placed on the floor. Employees walk around carrying hot coals in metal baskets. They place the coals on top of the chamber holding the tobacco. Once the tobacco begins burning, people start smoking and pass the hose around.

“It’s more like a coffee shop than a nightclub,” said Mirza, whose cafe also sells smoothies, juice, coffee and sandwiches along with hookah. Customers shoot pool, play cards and watch TV.

Anaheim Police Chief John Welter said he heard about the hookah problems when he joined the department last year.

The city’s cafes -- which are concentrated on a stretch of Brookhurst Street known as Little Gaza because of its many Arab restaurants and markets -- were taking too much police time, he said.

In the last 2 1/2 years, police responded to 499 incidents, including assaults, theft and arson.

In Garden Grove, police have responded to 158 calls at the city’s four hookah cafes since 2003, resulting in 16 arrests.

“The majority of the hookah bars were operating legally and safely,” Welter said. “The problem was there were very few regulations.”

Police said they could not say which hookah cafes were causing the problems.

At a cafe near Magnolia High School in Anaheim, patrons at night were driving around barricades and onto the school’s lawn to park in its lot, Welter said.

Council members responded this week by tentatively approving an ordinance keeping hookah cafes, cigar lounges and tobacco bars away from residential neighborhoods and banning cover charges, live music, belly dancing, alcohol and attendance by minors.

The ordinance also calls for uniformed security guards, adequate lighting and proper ventilation.

Final approval for the ordinance is expected Nov. 8.

“The hookah bars have taken the atmosphere of a friendly establishment and turned it into a pseudo-nightclub,” said Anaheim Mayor Pro Tem Richard Chavez, who occasionally visits the local hookah cafes with friends.

“If it had not gotten to that point, it wouldn’t be an issue at all.”

Sam Zayat, co-owner of H. Dreams Cafe in Anaheim, said banning entertainment, especially belly dancing, a big part of Middle Eastern culture, didn’t make sense.

“We’re playing music right now. What’s the difference if we have a DJ?” Zayat asked while a song by the Black Eyed Peas blared in the background. “If a person gets up to dance, what’s the difference in having a belly dancer come and dance?”

He said “a couple” of hookah cafes have problems, tarnishing the image of the others.

The regulations, he said, will cause hookah cafes in Anaheim and Garden Grove to lose clientele to unregulated cafes in Los Angeles.

“If they’re going to do it strict like this, these businesses are going to close,” Zayat said.

Earlier this month, Garden Grove council members approved an ordinance banning new hookah businesses until regulations can be adopted.

Garden Grove Police Lt. Mike Handfield, a spokesman for the department, said officers were concerned that hookah cafe problems could escalate into the violence seen in the city’s cyber cafes a few years ago.

The problems peaked when a 20-year-old man was stabbed with a screwdriver outside of a now-defunct cyber cafe on Garden Grove Boulevard in December 2001.

Six months later, a 14-year-old boy was followed home from a cyber cafe and shot to death.

Like the cyber cafes, hookah businesses attract intoxicated people who arrive after bars and clubs close, he said.

City officials passed an ordinance in 2002 that forced cyber cafes to limit their hours, hire security guards and log customers.

“Hookah parlors are becoming more popular and more crowded,” Handfield said. “We’re trying to keep them from becoming the same monster that the cyber cafes became.”

In the parking lot of Garden Grove’s Fishawi Cafe in August, a man in the parking lot fired a handgun into the air and threatened a guard when he and a friend were told not to loiter.

An off-duty Garden Grove police officer who was at the cafe heard the shots and followed the men in his car.

The men fired at the officer during the chase and were arrested and booked on suspicion of attempted murder.

“Some would say that we’re trying to over regulate this, but if we’re at these places so often, we can’t be helping other people,” Handfield said.