Proposed BYOB ordinance could force Groton hookah lounge to close

Groton — Beats blare from DJ Rich One as the sweet smell of flavored tobacco permeates the air and rainbow lights swirl mesmerizingly across the dance floor.

But nobody is dancing yet. The patrons, having paid their $15 covers, are sitting on the benches around the perimeter of the room. It's 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday at Midnight Hookah Lounge, which is at its busiest between roughly 2:15 and 3:15 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

This is why owner Hossam Abudawood is concerned about the bring-your-own-bottle ordinance the Groton Town Council passed unanimously on Aug. 7, which limits the consumption of alcohol at BYOB establishments to before midnight on weeknights and before 1 a.m. on weekends.

Groton Town Council Mayor Patrice Granatosky said in an email that the lack of state BYOB regulations came to the attention of the council because of incidents involving law enforcement at Midnight Hookah. Patrons of hookah lounges use water pipes to smoke flavored tobacco. 

While she said having an ordinance makes things easier for the police department, Police Chief Louis Fusaro noted that police did not ask the Town Council for the ordinance. He thinks assertions that Midnight Hookah is being targeted are unfair because the ordinance is "blanket for the public safety interests of the entire community."

Granatosky indicated that existing BYOB establishments may change their hours, and that future business owners may not be great to work with.

"Rules on hours should be in place based on the safety of our citizens, not based on how late an establishment wants to stay open," she said.

The ordinance is coming before the Groton Representative Town Meeting on Wednesday evening. Unless the RTM vetoes it, the ordinance will go into effect 45 days from the town council's passage, which works out to Sept. 21.

Anyone in violation of the ordinance can be fined $250.

The town council scheduled a public hearing on the ordinance for June 26. The only person to speak was Robert McDade, a Fitch High School senior who is a youth advocate for the Groton Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (GASP).

"I feel that it could help with preventing underage drinking and may also prevent driving under the influence," he said.

Abudawood said he didn't attend that hearing because he didn't yet know about the ordinance, but he did speak against the ordinance on Aug. 7, as did some of his supporters.

Abudawood said that if the ordinance starts to hurt his business, he'll have to shut it down.

"The whole thing, in the absence of more, just smacks to me, on its face, of some type of peremptory discriminatory act, because I think it is arbitrary and capricious," said Donald Williams, an attorney who lives and works in Groton. "I understand the need to regulate the health, safety and welfare of our community, but the ordinances I think need to be rationally related to a legitimate local basis."

There do not appear to be other establishments in Groton that would be impacted by the ordinance, based on hours of operation. Midnight Hookah is open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. on weeknights, and until 4 a.m. on weekends.

Devell Latchman said he goes to Midnight Hookah after getting off work as a hotel shift manager at midnight.

"I go there with my drink, I stay there a few hours and then I leave," he said. "I do not go there to get drunk or intoxicated; I go there to smoke hookah and to be in a very comfortable environment with music and with my roommate or a few friends."

Carolyn Wilson, Portia Bordelon and Frank del Campo all spoke in favor of the ordinance, though Bordelon expressed concern on making sure other BYOB establishments were notified about the hours.

Establishments with liquor licenses are permitted to serve alcohol until 1 a.m. on weeknights and 2 a.m. on weekends.

Fusaro was in favor of the one-hour buffer between licensed and BYOB locations, saying it would make enforcement easier for his officers.

He supports the ordinance and told The Day on Monday, "I think the council is being very proactive and ensuring they do their due diligence to promote public safety and address any public safety issues in the future."

Even if it wanted to, Midnight Hookah would not be able to get a liquor license, as state law prohibits smoking in any area of an establishment with a liquor permit. 

A place for workers to come after a late shift

Abudawood previously operated Nina's Hookah Lounge in Bridgeport, also open until 4 a.m. He moved to Groton last year and started driving for Uber. A customer asked him if there were any hookah lounges in the area, and he saw an opportunity.

Midnight Hookah Lounge opened at 403 Pleasant Valley Road South — across from the shuttered Pleasant Valley Elementary, and next to Cardinal Honda — in November.

Abudawood said about half of his customers come to drink but the other half "just come here to chill." He said most of his customers come from working at one of the casinos, while others are other second-shift employees or college students.

Midnight Hookah has up to four security officers working during its busiest hours, Abudawood said. He said if he loses customers who want to be able to drink, he won't be able to pay that many security staff.

But he noted he has no incentive to have customers drinking large volumes of alcohol, considering he makes no money off drinks.

Abudawood noted that after opening, he got a restraining order against one problematic customer, but that he then didn't have any fights for almost four months.

The Day placed a Freedom of Information Act request on Sept. 4 with the Town of Groton Police Department, seeking call logs and incident reports involving Midnight Hookah. Police confirmed receipt of the request but have not yet provided the documents.

Abudawood said his maximum capacity is 116 but he doesn't let more than 70 or 80 people into the business. When closing time arrives, he said that employees and others remaining at Midnight Hookah sometimes patronize the nearby Groton Townhouse Restaurant, which is open 24 hours.

A vocal opponent of the ordinance has been Michael Whitehouse, an RTM member and the person who first notified Abudawood of the ordinance. Whitehouse created the blog Save Midnight Hookah.

In an Aug. 6 letter to the Town Council, he laid out his reasons for opposing the ordinance: It's too broad and vague, legislation should not be crafted based on police discretion and it would force Midnight Hookah to close or relocate.

Whitehouse feels Groton doesn't need new laws to enforce existing ones, as on drunken driving, and that this ordinance is "a solution in search of a problem."

e.moser@theday.com

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