Up in Smoke

 

Shisha, also referred to as a waterpipe, is said to have first been used in ancient Persia and India. Though the invention dates back many centuries, it is only in the past decade that the shisha has begun gaining widespread popularity elsewhere, notably in the UK, France, Russia and the US, with the opening of specialty shisha cafes

 



Ironically, as more countries continue to enforce increasingly stringent laws banning smoking, establishment owners are making full use of existing loopholes, including in some cases the use of waterpipes. As a result, demand for this age-old apparatus is accelerating and spreading throughout the world.
In the Middle East region, according to a Euromonitor report, legislation passed by the Egyptian parliament in 2015 led to cigarette prices rising by 50 percent, resulting in increased demand for shisha smoking.
A trend in Australia, meanwhile, has seen smokers in increasing numbers move from the traditional shisha to an electronic version in recent years. In fact, it has become so popular that Europe has turned it into a global industry with more than 20,000 visitors from 74 countries gathering at HookahFair, the world´s biggest annual, three-day trade fair specializing primarily in waterpipes and electronic shishas. There, merchants, wholesalers and purchasers of shishas and shisha tobacco gather to discover the newest and most interesting novelties on offer. The event first took place in Frankfurt, expanding over the years to Berlin and Spain, with New York getting in on the action this year.
Significantly, Social Smoke, an online retail concept launched in 2003 by an Iranian family, had become the largest manufacturer of shisha tobacco in the US by 2015. The company’s profile was raised considerably in 2009, when an article on its operations was published in Fortune Small Business magazine. The story prompted so much interest that CNN Money aired a segment on it, marking the first time in American history that a shisha company was depicted in a positive light. Years later, this recognition still earns Social Smoke respect around the world as an industry leader and innovator.


Global appeal
Shining a spotlight on another successful venture, HN interviewed Mohammad Rabah, CEO of Royal Tobacco Group S.A.R.L. the sole distributor for Al Fakher, a UAE company offering the world’s finest shisha tobacco worldwide. “We operate in all Arab countries throughout the region and are present in Germany, Austria, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, the US, Brazil and are the only brand in China,” he explained.
While there is global interest in shisha smoking, its appeal varies greatly from one continent to another. “The shisha has been an intricate part of the Arab world’s cultural fabric and a very important social vehicle central to human interaction,” Rabah said. “This is cemented in the fact that if you see a fully booked restaurant or café, you can rest assured they offer shisha as opposed to the empty ones that do not.”
While this may not apply elsewhere, primarily due to stringent anti-smoking laws and hefty fines, it’s evident that in the last couple of years, Europeans have become increasingly accustomed to the idea that ordering a shisha, either in public or private, can be compared to ordering food. “The irony is, in some countries, smoking a shisha in F&B establishments is permitted, while smoking cigarettes is not,” Rabah noted. “While this may strike some as bizarre, the reason is simple and makes perfect business sense. Customers bring their cigarettes with them and therefore the café or restaurant makes no money from them. On the other hand, ordering a shisha is a great money-maker and is only available from the establishment itself.”
What remains of paramount importance, however, and also gives the shisha its great appeal, is the choice it offers of hundreds of flavors, a concept that has only existed since the Turks came up with the idea in the 1980s. Around that time, Nakhla, the Egyptian competing





tobacco brand, also emerged on the scene and, by the mid-1990s had created its apple-flavored tobacco, which remains a good seller today.

A Lebanese staple
“In 1999, Al Fakher was the first to set up shop in the Lebanese market, producing everything a shisha smoker requires, while also creatiing and offering five new flavors,” Rabah said. “Since then, the company has continued to create new offerings to remain internationally competitive.”
Local clients, he said, include: Al Falamanki; Kahwet Beirut; Babel; Abdul Wahab; Shams Restaurant; and Anjar, which is the biggest in the Bekaa Valley. Rabah added that another major selling point is its premium quality tobacco.
“Al Fakher is the only company that harvests the first batch of Virginia tobacco that industry professionals concede is the best,” he said. “For the flavors, we get the ingredients from Germany and develop them before exporting them. For Arabs, the preferred flavors are lemon, grape, mint and apple. Europeans ask for bubblegum and just about anything that is sweet, while Americans like unusual flavors, such as volcano, funny bunny and pie to name a few. In other words, when it comes to accommodating demand, the Arab region is fairly straightforward, unlike international markets which constantly keep us wondering.”
Despite the fact that Lebanon is a small market compared to some others, it nevertheless plays a major role as the company’s testbed for newly created flavors for the region and farther afield.
Outlining the setup, Rabah explained that Al Fakher has top of the line, fully-computerized Italian and German machines that allow the highest forms of accuracy and therefore guaranteed quality and consistency. “We have strategically positioned factories in the UAE to serve Asia, Egypt to serve Africa and Turkey to serve Europe and America. Combined, they can produce 120 tons of tobacco per day or 42,000 tons a year, all of which is sold,” he added.
With demand doubling year on year, according to Rabah, the USD 2 billion company is set to turn a substantial profit and, in return, introduce the world to a host of additional innovative flavors in the near future.
alfakher.com

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