Smoking shisha in the South Side

During the first few days of school, first-years may have noticed unusual smoking devices on the cut. Those students from the New York or Los Angeles areas might already be familiar with the devices, but for others this may have been the first time they have been exposed to them. Hookahs, Middle Eastern and Indian smoking devices, have become a staple of Carnegie Mellon culture.
Carnegie Mellon graduate Brian Wilson took his business education, combined it with his love for smoking shisha (the flavored tobacco), and created his own hookah bar. HKAN, pronounced ?H-Kan,? is a hookah bar founded and managed by CMU graduates. It is located at 2210 E. Carson St. in the South Side.
The hookah is a water pipe that peaked in popularity in 17th century Turkey. It is also known as the nargile in the Middle East. The original hookah or nargile originated in India. Its popularity spread to the Middle East during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Due to the hookah?s high popularity in Egypt in the 17th century, the hookah that we see here in the United States is typically of the Egyptian design.
The hookah is designed for special high grade tobaccos called shisha that are soaked in fruit oil, pulp, honey, and molasses; these tobaccos have only 0.5 percent nicotine and zero tar. Currently trendy, hookah smoking has become particularly popular in areas that have a large Arab or Indian population.
HKAN is one of a few places in Pittsburgh that features Middle Eastern traditions, including smoking and music. Their combination of Persian-style window shapes and Egyptian drumming on Saturdays has opened up the South Side to the rituals, architecture and music of Middle Eastern culture. There is still a very American feel to it, which gives the establishment an inviting atmosphere, and their wide variety of shisha flavors brings an eclectic mix of patrons of varied ethnic backgrounds, ages, and professions.
Traditionally, shisha bars and clubs were designed for coffee-shop style environments where the clients were predominantly, if not exclusively, men. It remains common to find shisha bars in immigrant communities at which people congregate to drink tea, smoke shisha, and play checkers.
HKAN is one of a number of new Americanized environments where men and women enjoy shishah in a less traditional environment. At HKAN one can enjoy coffee, tea, and conversation, whether it is philosophical, political, or personal sitting casually around the hookah. In many shishah-smoking circles where a group shares one hookah, the individual smoking will have the turn to lead the conversation until the hookah is passed to the next person.
HKAN features paintings from local artists (most recently Alex Alessi of CMU), and their art director plans to curate a rotating show. There is also an impressive blown glass hookah made exclusively for HKAN by local artist Duff O?Brien.
Carnegie Mellon senior art student Erica May stated, regarding the new establishment, ?The combination of hookah, drumming, dancing, and architecture which defines a large part of middle eastern culture with a young American setting, American artists and supervisors gives it a really welcoming feel. It is an important progressive move, as well as being very tasty. The hookah is the best kind of sit-around-high... it?s great!?
While there is more than one shisha bar in the South Side, what makes HKAN of particular interest is its connection with Carnegie Mellon. The owners and managers attribute their education at CMU to their successful creation of an Americanized version of the Arabic tradition of shishah bars. Pillbox had the opportunity to sit down, smoke apricot and a double apple hookah with co-founder Brian Wilson, Shannon Harvey (the manager) and Jason Soll an investor from KDR.

Pillbox: Where did the name ?HKAN? come from?
Wilson: The name ?HKAN? originated from a brother at Kappa Delta Rho named Hkan. Jokingly the hookahs at the house were named H-KAN 1 and H-KAN 2.
Pillbox: How did the hookah culture on campus influence your business?
Wilson: There is definitely a good market for hookahs at CMU. I remember chilling out at the fence and smoking a hookah there. There were always kids gathering around trying to find out what it was.
Pillbox: Was your original target clientele CMU students, then?
Wilson: My original target clientele was mostly college students, and then when the project moved from Oakland to Southside, because we couldn?t compete with Starbucks for location, it now includes a large group of young professionals and some older people as well. There are also a lot of Arabs that live in the neighborhood who frequently come here, ranging in age from 20 to 50. There is this one man who is in his forties and he comes here and smokes double apple flavored shisha every single day.
Pillbox: How would you say that this business relates to the CMU community?
Shannon: My thoughts on that is that it?s a really good example of combining technology, business and art and that type of stuff; because Carnegie Mellon is all about bringing together all disciplines. We have a point-of-sale system that is being put together by a former ECE major; the business aspect is being run by a business major; the interior is being constructed by a drama major.
Jason: It is a big collaborative project where we have been able to bring out skills together as friends, as a group. As a community, and have been able to demonstrate what is the perfect ideal for Carnegie Mellon, to actually create multidisciplinary projects. That?s the point. That is what Carnegie Mellon wants us to do. And with each aspect we get to bounce our ideas off of someone with a different view, to talk about potential pitfalls and potential goals. And by looking at all of these aspects, everyone brings together a different view, I think we have arrived at something that has turned out really, really well.
After the interview with Brian Wilson, Shannon Harvey, and Jason Soll, Pillbox had the opportunity to experience what HKAN was all about. Having sampled the apricot and double apple shishah during the interview, the next two flavors to burn were strawberry vanilla and lemon mint. After a cup or two of lightly sweetened jasmine tea, relaxation was on the menu while Pillbox observed different clients in the exotic atmosphere. Sitting with 3 different hookahs outside was a party of four Duquesne students who were there when Pillbox arrived and stayed far later. A party of six adults in their thirties were ?hubble-bubbling? five hookahs in a booth that was lit by a luminous fish tank. A couple huddled together smoking bubblegum-grape shishah in a quite corner of the room and blended into the atmosphere, while a few students stayed at their individual tables smoking and typing away on their computers.
The atmosphere at HKAN is one that you will not find at most bars or restaurants. Many restaurants focus getting the patrons in and out in a short amount of time, but here you can relax, take your time and savor the experience. The average person comes in a group of four to six people and spends a few hours.
Once the kitchen opens, Wilson expects to feature ?a blend of Mediterranean and Turkish cuisine.? The bar hopes to have 12 high-class beers on tap and serve a series of both traditional and Middle Eastern themed mixed drinks. The owners hope they can maintain the current atmosphere of the restaurant and prevent it from becoming a college dive. Hoping to expand to the second floor of the building, they plan to separate the bar from the hookah smoking and maintain their 18-plus clientele. If they do succeed in expanding to the second floor, they plan to hire DJs and make compilation mixes featuring popular house and Arabic music. Even with the expansion, at HKAN it will be a pleasure to burn.