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Two years ago, Saeed Kiblawi opened a hookah lounge in St. Anthony where customers can puff on pipes to sample his Middle Eastern-style tobacco. He applied for a tobacco license with the city, which gave it to him on the condition he upgrade the ventilation in the strip mall space he rents for Flamezz Hookah Lounge.
Yet, city leaders in St. Anthony say they didn't know people would actually be smoking inside, and have now taken Kib- lawi to court to stop people from lighting up.
"We're not trying to get rid of his business; we're trying to get rid of smoking," Council Member Hal Gray said. "We don't allow smoking in bars or any of those establishments, so ... we didn't feel that was reasonable to make any exception in St. Anthony."
Council Member Jim Roth admitted that the city could have been more explicit about its mixed feelings toward Flamezz, but he blames Kiblawi for opening the lounge before the council decided how to deal with hookahs.
To Kiblawi, 32, who moved here from Lebanon 17 years ago, his yearlong battle over his hookah store comes after he's spent about $40,000 on a ventilation system and $150,000 on renovations -- only to have the City Council pass an ordinance that now effectively snuffs out his business.
"I did everything you asked for -- why now you change your mind?" he said.
While state law prohibits smoking indoors, local hookah lounges have typically relied on a provision that allows sampling of tobacco in stores that sell it; cities, however, can outlaw it. In Roseville, the issue came up this month after Kiblawi inquired about relocating his business there; as a result, the City Council also banned tobacco sampling.
In April 2010, when Kiblawi applied for a license in St. Anthony, it was granted with the condition that he install a ventilation system. In June 2010, the council approved the license, but later that same meeting, council members passed a moratorium on issuing more tobacco licenses.
"We didn't know what a hookah was," Roth said.
Once the city realized that Kiblawi's tobacco store would have indoor smoking, Roth said the council decided to explore the issue. Perhaps the City Council could have been more clear with Kiblawi on how the moratorium might affect him, Roth added, but Kiblawi knew the moratorium was in place, so "he had the choice to make a decision to invest in a business that had a moratorium. That's not my fault he didn't [wait]."
Last April, the council unanimously approved prohibiting the sampling of tobacco. Kiblawi has received several misdemeanor citations for violating the ordinance; he hasn't been convicted and is set to appear in Hennepin District Court on March 19. Flamezz is the only St. Anthony business affected by the ordinance.
Kiblawi's attorneys argue the council's "change of heart" by instituting an "overreaching" ordinance is trumped by state law. Attorney Paul Engh added that the council's claim to be unaware of smoking in Flamezz is "illogical -- why insist on a ventilation system?"
Attorney Eric Brever said hookah isn't well-understood in the suburban community, calling the city's move "a real bait-and-switch kind of thing."
Both Roth and Gray say Kiblawi can still sell tobacco products. However, Kiblawi said the sampling ban will put him out of business. Like most hookah stores, a majority of his revenue comes from customers paying to smoke one of the dozens of flavored tobacco he sells.
"To survive, we can't do it in [selling] tobacco products only," he said, and if his business is shut down, "I'm screwed."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib