As everyone on both sides of the debate knows full well, it’s no longer legal to smoke in restaurants and coffee shops in London.
There is, however, one exception to the rule, a place where people smoke every day with their coffee and tea — legally sanctioned.
At Crazy Joe’s Shisha Cafe, customers are invited to smoke from a shisha pipe, puffing herbal smoke in a dozen flavours, all free of tobacco, tar and nicotine. Historically, the shisha pipe, also known as a hookah, has been used to smoke products with varying degrees of legality.
The first few landlords whom cafe owner Joe Alomeiri approached about his idea shied away for that reason.
“They were afraid of what people would be smoking, but we keep complete control over the substance that goes in, and it’s all herbal with flavours such as apple, mango, mint and strawberry.”
Alomeiri, 44, is an energetic native of Jordan who arrived in Canada in mid-February, nearly three years ago. He came via Lebanon, where he lived for several years as a refugee. He remembers vividly his arrival to a bitterly cold city where he knew no one.
“I walked around the downtown on my second day, exploring the city. It was very cold.”
A civil engineer by training, he quickly found work as a window washer, a business he had run in Lebanon. “When I was in Lebanon, I ran the business, but I didn’t clean the windows myself. I had employees. I started washing windows and I also volunteered at Mission Services.”
That led to a full-time job at Mission Services for two years. However, before and during his time there, he worked at several other jobs, selling fruit and cleaning windows in what he describes as his spare time. That spare time for most people is when they sleep, but Alomeiri slept very little, and for all his pursuits he earned or gave himself the nickname Crazy Joe.
He considers it his brand, and he is reticent to reveal his real last name. Instead, he prefers to be known as Crazy Joe, as his business cards attest.
A year ago, he started thinking about opening a cafe where he could showcase Middle Eastern food, drink and culture, a place where the roughly 40,000 Londoners of Arabic descent might come for a piece of their homelands.
But he also wanted to reach out to other cultures and introduce things like sage tea, shisha pipes and a variety of Middle Eastern dishes to a wider audience.
After striking out with a couple of landlords, he found a spot on Wharncliffe Road, across from Source for Sports. He renovated the former karate studio himself, dressing it up with laminate flooring, bright colours and flat-screen TVs. Seating varies from tables and chairs to couches made for relaxing and visiting with friends.
On weekends, he pushes the tables aside to make room for a party. Live bands and belly dancers take over and celebrate a slice of culture not often seen in London but meaningful to many who live here.
Since opening this fall, he has been thrilled with the weekend crowds in particular. He stays open later on Fridays and Saturdays, sometimes until 3 a.m. if people are still enjoying themselves. This summer, he will open a patio. In the meantime, Crazy Joe has settled down a little bit. He’s got one job, and he’s working hard to make his cafe a success.