There used to be nothing happening in Herkimer on a Wednesday night. At least according to 17-year-old Nick Anguzza, of West Winfield. That changed in June when 29-year-old New Hartford resident Chris Fusillo opened Blub! Blub! Hookah Hub on North Main Street.

Hookahs – traditional water pipes that originated in the Middle East and India – are the main draw at the new venue. But Middle-Eastern inspired tapas such as hummus and baklavah and live entertainment on the weekends add to the draw. By Wednesday, the bar also expects to be serving wine and beer.

It’s the perfect place to “chill,” Anguzza said. Judging by the way the bar fills up on Open Mic Wednesdays, it seems others – representing various ages – might agree.

“This is all full on Wednesdays,” Anguzza said, waving his hand toward a row of benches lined across red and black painted walls in the dimly lit venue. “And there were, like, moms doing it, too.”

Growing trend

Hookah bars are commonly found in bigger cities, especially New York City, and college towns, but Blub! Blub! is the first to reach the Mohawk Valley.

Fusillo said he saw potential for a hookah bar in Utica, but had trouble finding the perfect venue. The 800-square-foot bar on Herkimer’s Main Street ended up offering the perfect space, he said.

“I spent a lot of time in Manhattan and had some great experiences in hookah bars there and thought it was time to bring that to this area,” Fusillo said.

So far, the clientele has ranged in age from teenagers to people in their 50s and 60s, he said. While there’s no state-mandated minimum age for smoking the tobacco-free mix used in the hookahs, the bar will be 21-and-older only once it begins serving alcohol this week, he said.

A second location in Utica is already in the works.

“It’s becoming a reality,” he said. “There’s a location that’s been picked out, and we’re negotiating the sale.”

How it works

Most hookahs consist of a bowl that holds the material being smoked, a reservoir of water that cools the smoke as it’s inhaled, and a flexible pipe.
Traditionally, the pipes are used to smoke flavored tobacco. But since it’s illegal to smoke tobacco in bars and restaurants in New York state, and there are various dangers associated with smoking tobacco out of a hookah, Fusillo made a decision early on to only allow the herbal shisha at his venue.

“We don’t want to have tobacco here. Even if we could, we wouldn’t,” he said. “The herbal doesn’t have tar or harsh chemicals.”

Fusillo makes the shisha served at Blub! Blub! from a plant found in the foods we commonly eat, he said. He wouldn’t reveal what the ingredient was, but many mixes are made from sugar cane, according to various websites. Fusillo also mixes honey and molasses with his secret ingredient before adding the flavoring of the smoker’s choice, he said. There are 18 flavors offered at the Herkimer bar.

Is it safe?

Whether customers are smoking tobacco or herbs, Hookah bars are not without controversy.

The American Lung Association reports that smoking tobacco through a hookah has the same health hazards as cigarette smoking, including heart disease, clogged arteries and lung cancer.

There are few studies that have gauged how herbal shisha affects people’s health, but Russ Sciandra, director of advocacy for the American Cancer Society in New York State, said that any type of smoking is harmful.

“Whatever you’re smoking is dangerous,” he said. “You shouldn’t breathe in smoke of any kind.”

Fusillo contends that while smoking anything can be unsafe, the effects are minimal to none unless a person is smoking the herbal blend all day and night.

Hookah smoking offers a social experience, he added.

“People find it relaxing. Some people feel like they’re getting high,” he said, laughing. “I’ve read a lot about the placebo effects of people thinking they’re getting high and start acting like it. It’s weird, but it happens, and to see it happen is funny.”

There are no reports of herbal shisha, which is legal, having actual mind-altering effects. But the use of hookahs to smoke marijuana adds to the controversy around them.