March 23, 2014
It’s Friday nearing 10pm and I am on my way to check out Forte Lounge and Cafe’ and every single review of the new hookah lounge has been five stars.
But I can’t help but be skeptical.
First off, I can’t find it and drive past it twice. Second, this intersection (Pleasant Valley Road and Riverside) has more bars on windows and chain-link fences around properties than I’m used to.
When I do find the plain cream brick building tucked in the back of a neglected lot, I am not reassured. Above the white double doors is the single word FORTE, in what looks like all caps Times New Roman font.
Stepping inside now.
Ok, this isn’t that bad.
Tonight is one of Forte’s newest events, a “Kegger Rave.” Buy a bowl for $15, and (if you are over 21) get free beer while listening to local deejays mix on stage – the event is a success, because the place is very crowded.
The walls are painted a muted raincloud-blue. Small black shelves are affixed to the wall- displaying small vases of silk flowers and dark glass stones. Beneath some hang various pieces of art, some abstract, some geometric. It’s simply, clean and elegant.
To the front left is a counter for people to order their hookahs and beverages. Since Forte’ is a BYOB establishment, it is also where they make their customers check-in their alcohol, where they keep it refrigerated and only allow those who present proper IDs (which they check “religiously”) to refill their glasses. To the right there is a red curtain hanging in an open doorway, leading to the bathrooms.
The room is lined with padded benches, some gray, some covered in a black and white hounds-tooth pattern. In the middle of the room is an island of more benches- which leaves the room feeling very communal. There are no booths, there are no private tables. Around the room each group of friends just blend into the other.
It’s all very welcoming, and beneath the warm glow from the overhead lamps everyone is crowding the tables crowned with clear plastic cups and shinning 36 inch khalil Mamoon hookahs. Through the vapors from the human chimneys and the mechanical fog, is a low stage where a deejay plays his set. Everyone is in good spirits, lounging around taking deep breaths from their hookahs, the buzz of excited chatter competing with the booming music.
Jimmy Lidgey is a college student and first time Forte customer. As he listens to the music he weighs in on the lounge, “It’s got a real open environment. The prices are pretty reasonable too.”
For the next few hours, the laughter lingers, the music echoes and people drift on and off the dance floor. Nearing the end of the night, it starts feeling more like a bar- people laughing loudly, small patches of sticky floors, and messy restrooms. At one point, the police arrive to arrest someone who has clearly had too much to drink.
Robert Fowler, a regular at Forte leans over to tell me, “I’ve been coming here since they opened, and it’s a great place. They’ve never had to call the cops. Just don’t let this one night ruin this place for you.”
Hookahs date back to northern India close to a millennium ago. Far from what we imagine today, these were designed simply as some sort of base like a coconut shell with a tube connected to a clay bowl where the tobacco would be placed. The more familiar idea we have of a hookah emerged in the 15th century when trade brought it to Turkey, and it grew wildly popular among the elite where it was served like a dessert after dinner or a meeting.
Kris Park, the 24-year-old owner of Forte, was 16 when he smoked his first hookah in his home town of Plano with his friends. It wasn’t long after that he was a hobbyist and began immersing himself into all aspects of the culture. At 18, he was studying accounting at the University of Texas at Austin, he landed a job working at Cairo Hookah Lounge in Plano. Under the mentorship of the owner, he was the first non-family member employee.
“The guy pretty much Mr. Miyagi-ed me,” Park recalls with a rare chuckle, referencing the kindly teacher in the “Karate Kid” movie.
It started with observing — watching how the hookahs were handled, taken apart, built, and repaired. Finally he was allowed to touch them: washing hundreds a week, getting overwhelming hands-on training with everything from the ball bearings to the bases.
In a similar, incredibly detailed fashion, the owner started to educate Park on the traditional method of preparing shisha, the tobacco mixture used in hookahs. Typically it’s made of four ingredients: tobacco, honey or molasses (used as a preservative), glycerin, and a mixture of dried fruit. When properly prepared it resembles a jam.
Fluffen, moisten, pack, foil it. His teacher would inspect it, unwrap it, and make him do it again . . . and again. . .and again.
“I would make a hundred bowls a day. Fluffen, moisten, pack, foil, show it to him. Just to learn consistency. It was really intense training.”
As his knowledge grew, so did the list of places he smoked at in Texas: “I think I’ve been to every hookah bar in every major city in Texas: Denton, Dallas, Austin, Houston…,” he says as his voice trails off.
But he never saw one in Austin that he liked, so he decided to start his own. After a year of searching the real estate market, he finally found a location off Riverside Road. A friend, Will Segura, became a co-owner and angel investor and started restoring the abandoned location. The two hired on a manager, Abe Benski, and Forte held a grand opening two weeks before Christmas 2013.
Since then, their biggest has been getting their name out there. Fortunately though, it seems like Park’s experience gained at Cairo has definitely helped in building Forte’s reputation.
“You know, we have our target clientele, like college students, and the young professionals… but I’ve also seen that a lot of our regulars are also those I would call the hookah elitists: people who really enjoy the culture are really looking for a proper smoking experience.” As he speaks, he digs into the pocket of his cargo shorts and pulls out a pack of cigarettes, draws out a single smoke, lights it and takes a drag.
I return to Forte’ on a Monday around 6:30pm, curious to see the what it’s like on a different night of the week.
Opposed to the sea of college aged customers on that Friday, there are six customers, including two in their 30s taking advantage of the Wifi. Also, in contrast to the Friday night pulsating electronic music, the volume of the eclectic songs playing from the speakers is cut more than in half. It is quiet enough for the first time that I can hear the signature bubbling from the hookahs around the room- a sound that reminds me of when you give a kid a straw with their milk.
I found myself wishing that I didn’t live on the opposite side of Austin. With the spotless lounging area, the open space, the Internet and a nice small selection of coffee and teas- this would be the perfect place to work on any given afternoon.
In one corner, three students are quietly playing UNO.
A young woman giggles, “Nooo!” as another places down the winning card.
“Wanna play again,” the only guy in the group asks, as he begins shuffling.
“Sure,” she responds.
The winner takes a breath off the hookah in the center of their table.
I step up to the kitchen counter where I am introduced to Segura, also is in his early 20s. I mention that I was at one of the Friday night events and he grins.
“I’m pretty sure that we’re going to start doing that every Friday. We also have a local band that comes out and plays. We’re always looking for musicians to perform. We’re open to all types of music too- country, rock, indie, deejays, comedians…”
He steps out from the kitchen and continues, “We have table top board game night, open mic night… We are also thinking about starting, ‘Shitty Movie Monday night, but there aren’t enough bad movies in the world. I mean you can only watch Dragon Ball: Evolution so many times.”
He gestures to the stage: “We have a screen we can use, and we were thinking of giving away free popcorn to throw at the movie. We also have it so if you want to bring a game system and hook it up to play with your friends, we allow that too.”
“I wouldn’t be satisfied with just one,” Kris says with nonchalant determination. He’s talking about opening up new places in growing Austin.
His goal is to start with this location, and build a franchises model for a hookah lounge. He wouldn’t stop there, he added, once he had enough locations, and a large enough customer basis who enjoys their shisha- he wants to move on to packaging and distributing their hookah their mixes to be sold in smoke shops.
Who knows. In a city like Austin, where locals support each other’s enterprises, and there are more college students than you can shake a stick at…. One thing is certain: anything is possible.