By Alyx Chandler

Ever since November when former University of Alabama football player Von Ewing opened his hookah lounge off the Strip at UA, college students have been lining up almost every night at the Blue Caterpillar to embrace Tuscaloosa’s exclusive new bar designed for people who want to chill, smoke some hookah and buy drinks with their friends.

Von Ewing, a UA theater and telecommunications and film graduate in 2007, was inspired by a hookah bar owner from his hometown in Troy, Alabama, to take a shot at opening his own place to smoke hookah. With his own money, Ewing decided to buy and kickstart the first hookah lounge to thrive in Tuscaloosa.

“In three months I’ve probably only had four slow nights,” said Ewing. “I would consider it definitely a success.”

In bigger cities, hookah bars are more well-known and prevalent, but plenty of people in the Tuscaloosa area own personal hookahs, though usually not the size of quality of the hookahs worth hundreds of dollars that are used mainly at hookah bars.

“I’ve always hookahed,” Ewing said. “I’m not necessarily chill, but I can appreciate this chill atmosphere.”

A hookah can be broken down like this: it consists of a large water pipe with hoses, flavored tobacco and burning coals. Hookahs are thought to have originated in India, but they gained popularity in the Middle East. Shisha, the flavored tobacco, is soaked in a certain flavor or fruit shavings. Flavors can be fruity, like Blueberry, to more of a sweet flavor like Mint Chocolate Chip. It can taste like beverages, such as Sex on the Beach, or be a unique mixed flavor like the minty Magic Dragon. Depending on the size of the hookah and how many people smoking it, smoking can last from 45 minutes to over an hour.

It took Ewing five months to open the Blue Caterpillar and even longer to hire a crew of workers he now considers some of his close friends. He based their employment on being comfortable and outgoing in big groups. He stresses customer service as a key to success at the Blue Caterpillar. Since Ewing previously lived in Tuscaloosa, he understands the party scene and how a hookah bar would be unique for UA students.

“When you got something different, people will flock to it,” Ewing said.

Ewing opens the Blue Caterpillar 6 p.m. on Monday-Saturday and sometimes on Sundays, with their busiest days on Thursday and the weekend.

The positive reaction last November when it opened was enormous. Ewing said he was overwhelmed by the rush of people circulating in and out all night. The success of the first few weeks brought the same customers back multiple days in a row.

“I definitely have a soft spot for Tuscaloosa, that is where I really became responsible, this is where I sweated for years,” Ewing said.

Previously Ewing pursued acting and advertising, then was the regional Verizon manager for eight stores. He lived by himself and saved most of his money. Ewing said he loves interacting with people and his acting career has prepared him for that. Otherwise, he hasn’t had any experience in running his own business.

“Life is the only kind of training you need, just a little common sense and a little knowledge,” Ewing said.

Once the Blue Caterpillar was up and going, Ewing took some time the last few months to be with his family and only traveled to Tuscaloosa to work some weekdays. His new managers covered for him on weekends and other days. Ewing officially moved to Tuscaloosa in mid-February.

Many of the hookah bars in the U.S. are still fashioned similar to the original Middle Eastern bars, but Ewing wanted the Blue Caterpillar to have its own vibe.

“Our hookah bar is more Americanized. There are chairs to lounge in, it’s comfortable. We play what music they want. We let everyone create their own experience and enjoyment,” Jonathan McKnight, a junior nursing major at Shelton University, said.

McNight is currently taking the semester off to work multiple jobs to pay for his college, but says Blue Caterpillar is his favorite job so far. When it first opened, he went six nights in a row, and then one night Ewing asked him to watch the counter because they were so packed. He was offered the job on the spot.

McNight, known as Nugget while working, said he wants everyone at the Blue Caterpillar to feel like he’s their best friend. He’s been working there since a couple weeks after it first opened, and he makes everyone feel comfortable about trying and smoking hookah.

“I was a loyal customer so he trusted me and gave me a chance,” McNight said.

He now works at least five nights a week. Most customers enjoy his big smile. The customer loyalty has increased substantially since the opening, with lines for some weekend nights wrapping around High Tide all the way to Steamers. Blue Caterpillar  has a greeter who works to serve as many people as possible.

“We are brand new, so we’re learning as we go,” McNight said.

Jake Dzurino, a University of Alabama sophomore double majoring in marketing and finance, goes to the Blue Caterpillar around three times a week with a couple friends or a large group on the weekend. He knows the owner and employees by name now.

“Ewing does a great job, always really courteous and keeps everyone under control—I’ve never noticed anyone complain about the service,” Dzurino said.

After trading knowledge with the people at the Blue Caterpillar, Dzurino recently decided to make a hookah out of an alcohol bottle. He said the design was relatively simple, and he made the hookah so that the top part spins and the hose doesn’t get wrapped around the bottle, which can be a common problem. He took it to the Blue Caterpillar to try it out, and found it to be a big hit. Ewing gave him a Kraken bottle to design a hookah for the Blue Caterpillar to use.

“We took it there last last weekend to show him and smoke from it. Actually, the whole place was raving about it. Everyone walked in asked about it,” Dzurino said.

Dzurino said the Blue Caterpillar is his favorite place in Tuscaloosa.

The chill environment and crowd control has been an enticing factor for both loyal customers and newcomers. It’s a comfortable place and it gives everyone a chance to meet new people in a low key, no-pressure environment.

Another component that draws in a big crowd is that it’s a 19 and over bar, so college kids under 21 can hangout there. They have recently started giving wristbands to everyone at the door to keep track of who is underage.

On the flip side, it’s also a solid choice for twenty-one year olds to come hangout and drink before heading to the bars on the Strip. Since it’s within walking distance, it’s a safe and easy option. Each week, Ewing introduces one new alcohol and beer for the bar. In addition, he changes the layout of the couches and tables and introduces two new hookah flavors every Friday.

Not everyone in Tuscaloosa has tried hookah, and some people are hesitant about the effects of smoking it.

“If you get drunk, could you get in a car? Probably not. But if you smoked three bowls of shisha, it would be no issue,” Dzurino said.

Dzurino researched how to properly make hookahs and also the health concerns about smoking. He said he researched an experiment where both cigarette and hookah smoking was deemed to cause health effects, but the negative effects of smoking was worse than hookah, he said. Since college students are looking for a reason to blow off some steam in between school work, they just have to “pick their poison,” he said, “and in my opinion, hookah is has one of the least dangerous choices.”

Ewing said anything done repeatedly over time can be harmful and moderation is the key.

“We’re not trying to hide the effects of hookah, it’s a social thing. It’s about meeting people around it—like a meal, it’s not about eating for two or three hours, but about talking and socializing together,” said McKnight.

Even though being Tuscaloosa’s first hookah lounge has made people flock to it, Ewing is ready to accept the challenge of when it becomes old news.

“I do have a plan—I try to keep a few plans in my back pocket,” said Ewing.

Ewing does research and checks out other hookah lounges in Atlanta to get ideas on how to spice up his hookah bar and keep it just as popular as it is now.

John Gunther, a senior Kennesaw State University pre-law student who transferred from the UA his sophomore year, road-trips to visit friends and go to the Blue Caterpillar almost every other weekend since it has opened.

“It’s not a frat house or bar, it’s a new place where everyone can hangout,” Gunther said.

Gunther said the unique part of the Blue Caterpillar is the homey feel. The building itself is on the smaller side of most bars and customers get personalized attention from the employees. Unlike the hookah lounges in Atlanta he’s been to, this one is an Americanized place fit for the Tuscaloosa scene.

“A lot of other bigger business don’t treat their customers like family,” Gunther said.

Some of the employees from Big Daddy’s, the hookah cafe in downtown Tuscaloosa, have visited the Blue Caterpillar to see what the commotion was all about. The major difference between the  two hookah hangouts in Tuscaloosa is that Big Daddy’s is a more traditional, less Americanized hookah cafe that serves Mediterranean food. It caters to a wider age group than the Blue Caterpillar.

“We’re totally different, I’m a hookah lounge and they’re a hookah cafe,” Ewing said.

Because of the location right next to the UA campus on the Strip, it’s more of a hookah hangout place designed for a college audience to hookah and drink. Ewing said he has nothing against Big Daddy’s, but he has never been there because he doesn’t want anyone to think he got his ideas from them.

Everyone is encouraged to stop by and check out the Blue Caterpillar. If anyone wants a classic flavor to try, Ewing said his go-to hookah flavor is White Gummy Bear, which impressively mimics the sweet and tangy candy. Hookah prices range from $10 to $18. Alcohol prices vary.

“We want to stay in Tuscaloosa. So we create something that Tuscaloosa wants,” McNight said.


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