A Georgia Southern student walked into the hookah and vape store.
“What do you recommend?,” he said to the owner, Sal Atta. “I got blue raspberry last time.”
“Sherbet is popular,” Atta said.
“I’m looking for something like waffle syrup.”
“We don’t have that, but we do have pancake.”
“What do you like? I want a small one [vaping cartridge] because I’m leaving town.”
Atta and the student discussed possible options, like sherbet, for a few more moments before the student settled on the pancake flavor.
“Alright, this small amount will still last for a good while,” Atta added.
The Smoke Haven, located in the College Plaza on Fair Road, seemed to experience an influx of customer traffic on Friday, Sept. 8, before Tropical Storm Irma passed through Georgia.
The increased foot traffic is not out of the norm for the shop. In fact, it has garnered enough business during its time of being open, that Atta is opening another shop in Statesboro.
It has taken the business a while to garner that much traffic, For Atta, the process began four years ago.
Atta, 54, moved to Statesboro from Charleston, South Carolina eight years ago because he had friends in the area and wanted to try something different career-wise.
He thought of starting a local hookah lounge partially because of the large population of college students in town.
“A lot of students still don’t want to go to a bar or a place that serves alcohol,” Atta said. “They want a place where they can bring their laptop and connect to the Internet…meet with a friend, get a coffee, or soda or something. Just enjoy company.”
Atta explained that smoking hookah is largely a social activity done in groups.
“Really, I was kind of like, when people get off work, they want a place to come relax, and they do smoke hookah. I find it’s a little easier to smoke than cigarettes,” Atta added.”After we opened, I realized the vaping industry is becoming very popular, so I tried to educate myself about it. It is, by far, it has been one of the fastest growing businesses [trend-wise].”
One of Atta’s employees, Joshua Dean Boyette, has helped him establish the vaping section of his store. Boyette is a business student at GS who started working for Atta about a year-and-a-half ago. He is taking a break from school this semester to help Atta with The Smoke Haven.
“When I first started working here, there wasn’t a lot of vape stuff. It was mostly hookah glass,” Boyette said.
Boyette and Atta saw vaping become more popular by talking to people and paying attention to social media. More companies were capitalizing on vaping as a trend by creating their own products.
“I told him [Atta] that there’s a lot of money in this stuff [vaping merchandise], and now half the store is vape and vape accessories,” Boyette said.
The Smoke Haven actually had to move into a bigger building, the spot they are at now in College Plaza, in order to display all of the merchandise. And now, that expansion has led to the establishment of another shop just for vaping supplies.
Atta is currently working on final details before opening his second shop, located on Hwy. 80. He has already met with the city inspector and fire marshal.
He expects to have a soft opening within two weeks of this article publishing. After that, he and his employees will prepare for that store’s grand opening.
“We [The Smoke Haven] have a strong name in this town, so I figured having a second location would be a plus, so we decided to go ahead and do it,” Atta said.
Atta thought of opening another store late last year. However, he wanted to wait because there was another vape shop on that side of town.
“I didn’t want to hurt him by opening a business there. It was a smaller shop, and it couldn’t stand much competition,” Atta said.
Atta explained that he wants to customize the second shop to its location.
“Every location has to be different, because the type of clientele there are going to be different from the customers here…you’ll get an older crowd coming there,” Atta said.
Though Atta moved to Statesboro from South Carolina, he was originally born in Saudi Arabia. He moved to Columbia, South Carolina when he was 19 and earned his business management degree from the University of South Carolina.
“I didn’t really have a plan to stay here [in America], but after I got here, I was like, ‘Hey, I kind of like it here. I can make a home here,” Atta said.
Atta’s business philosophy seems simple. If he likes an idea he has for a business, then he will act on it.
“I’ve done a few businesses in my life,” Atta said.
Those few business endeavors include a clothing business in Savannah, a steakhouse restaurant in Columbia, a grocery and check cashing store in Charleston and partnerships selling used cars in Columbia and Statesboro.
The grocery and check cashing business was the last one Atta owned before moving to Statesboro. He did the used car partnership in town for a couple of years prior to opening The Smoke Haven.
“When I sold a business, I did it for a reason,” Atta said. “Whatever works best, I’m a fast learner. You can throw me anywhere, and most likely, I’ll survive.”
He explained that back when he owned these different businesses, he was not married.
“If I was married, I probably couldn’t do all the moving…I was single. It was like pick up and go, get another business, do something,” Atta said.
Fortunately for Atta, his family has always been supportive of his business endeavors. It was originally family members that motivated him to become an entrepreneur.
“My dad was in the clothing business for a lot of years…it’s that mentality of working for yourself. When you work for yourself, there’s no limit to what you can achieve,” Atta said.
Atta is not the only one in his family, besides his father, that has started a business.
“One of my brothers has a business. Another one has another business. They’re working for themselves,” Atta added.
He also talked about how he has tried to exemplify his moral values of treating people right .
“My father was a religious man, so we tried to live the right way. Do right by yourself, by others…[in business] you’re not out there to cheat people,” Atta said, “You’re out there to treat them right. You’re not out there to make a dollar extra out of somebody.”
Dealing with the customer
On any given day, Atta’s customers include a mix of college students, older professionals and other Statesboro residents.
Caitlynn Hill, freshman pre-nursing major, has been a regular customer at Smoke Haven. She owns a hookah machine, called a shisha, and a water pipe.
“I’ve been coming here since high school [in Statesboro]…I know Sal better [than other shop owners], and I feel like he will cut me more deals,” Hill said.
Atta explained that his experience working in retail-related businesses and acting as a salesman has allowed him to deal with many people.
“In a way, it is a hospitality business… I enjoy dealing with people…It really brings a lot of joy to me,” Atta said.
Atta pointed out that business owners have to physically be at their shops to sell products and explain a product to the customers in order to make them understand it and want to buy it.
“You gotta have the right personality for the business you do and push it. You can’t just open the doors and expect business to boom daily,” Atta said.
Otherwise, those shops may open and close in the same year, because its owners do not know how to run it, Atta added.
He elaborated that entrepreneurial personality often involves taking the initiative.
Atta said, “There are a lot of opportunities in life, and those are for people who want to grab them…you learn from your mistakes, get up and keep going.”