The Reporter: Worth, Hookah Lounge Agree to Reduced Hours

the_reporter The owner of a hookah lounge in Worth believes some residents of the neighborhood near his cafe do not want him there because he is of Middle Eastern descent.

Friends Café, 11015 S. Harlem Ave., agreed to close three hours earlier following a special public meeting, held in private, last Thursday between Worth Mayor Randy Keller, Friends owner Ala Alsherbini and attorneys from both parties.

“I’ve been open for four years with no problems,” Alsherbini said during a phone interview Tuesday. “I don’t want to be targeted because I’m Middle Eastern.”

Alsherbini and the village reached an agreement at the public meeting held Aug. 27 that decreased Friends’ closing time from 1 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and 2 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends. Since the hours were reduced last Friday, Alsherbini said he has seen a big decrease in business.

“I’m not happy with it,” Alsherbini said. “I know I have other [legal] options [but] I just want to be trouble-free and maybe find a different location.”

Moving to another town might be the best solution because of the village’s plan to pass additional anti-tobacco legislation, Alsherbini said. Worth Village officials have been discussing an ordinance that, if approved, would ban smoking in all businesses regardless of whether it holds a tobacco license. The law would prohibit the smoking of hookahs and cigars at all tobacco retailers in the village, said village attorney Michael McGrath.

According to the special meeting agenda, the hearing Aug. 27 was to include “a motion requesting the revocation” of the café’s business license, but no motion was ever made. Instead, both parties met for roughly 70 minutes behind closed doors to work on a compromise.

“It’s typical to see if you can resolve something by agreement instead of the uncertainty of a hearing,” said McGrath, when asked why the public meeting was kept from the public.

McGrath met with Alsherbini and his attorney, Christiana Abraham, for about 15 minutes before Keller was asked to join the discussion. Between 7:15 and 8:10 p.m., several witnesses were called from the board room and taken to the private meeting to discuss the issues, which included loitering and littering allegations against Alsherbini’s business. No motion to adjourn the public meeting to closed session had been made to that point.

Evidence was presented by witnesses who claimed to have seen liquor store patrons hanging out in the parking lot, said Abraham, a civil rights director with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

“It is our belief that it’s actually the liquor store patrons causing the disturbance and not patrons of Friends Café,” said Abraham.

According to village officials, police have responded to more than 60 calls at Friends relating to loitering, littering and rowdy patrons. Two men were charged earlier this year with battery after allegedly fighting each other with knives and nunchucks in the café’s parking lot. The fight did not involve patrons of Friends, Alsherbini said Tuesday, contesting the allegations. A littering ticket Alsherbini received about six weeks ago was the first time he heard of the problems, he said.

“I was shocked because I’m sure the whole area was clean,” he said. “We do not allow anything in [the business] or out.”

Alsherbini said he met with Keller shortly after and was presented with 64 other complaints, none of which he was aware. None of the other businesses in the strip mall are being targeted, he added.

Following the meeting between both parties, the Village Board voted to approve a motion to go into executive session. McGrath said the board needed to discuss potential litigation, which would have likely been the outcome had Alsherbini not approved of the agreement.

The reduced hours include a provision that patrons inside Friends at closing time will be given an additional 30 minutes to finish smoking their hookahs. The business will then have 15 more minutes to make sure all patrons vacate the premises. If any noise or littering violations occur in the future, the police are informed to contact Alsherbini by the following Monday.

“I think he would rather be open until 2 a.m., but to show he is cooperating with the village, he was willing to compromise,” Abraham said of her client.

“Only 40 people can get in and there’s 60 trying to get in, so the other 20 are outside causing trouble and drinking alcohol and littering the parking lot. It’s been going on for too long,” Keller said following the meeting. “We were prepared to sign an agreement [last] Tuesday for 10 p.m. everyday and they were hoping for 12 o’clock. It was a good compromise and hopefully there’s no problems and they can continue on.”

Alsherbini believes more “harassment” will follow. A majority of the café’s patrons are 18 to 30 years old, and 90 percent to 95 percent of them are Caucasian, said Alsherbini, but there are still people who are opposed to his business. A complaining neighbor recently asked him what race he was, Alsherbini said.

“I believe it is very few people that don’t want me here,” he said.

For the time being, Alsherbini will just try to avoid problems until he can find another location for his business, he said.

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