WOONSOCKET — The Board of License Commissioners on Monday imposed the maximum sanctions against the new owners of an Arnold Street bar for allowing customers to smoke hookah without a license on three occasions – including twice after being ordered to stop by the police.
“You can write off the first offense as ignorance, but offenses two and three, you don’t have the luxury of having that defense any longer,” said Councilman Daniel Gendron.
The proprietor of Jaragua Lounge, 33 Arnold St., was fined $250 for the first offense and ordered to close on consecutive Fridays for each of the subsequent offenses, on March 1 and March 8, after a disciplinary hearing before the council, sitting as the Board of License Commissioners. Police Chief Thomas F. Oates advised the commissioners that Jaragua Lounge would be subject to continuing monitoring in the routine course of patrol duties.
Jaragua Lounge is the former Back Street Bar & Grill, a business that police knew as a hangout for gang members and the scene of multiple shootings. Last fall, the business was sold to Francisco Mendez, who now holds the liquor license.
Mendez was present for Monday’s hearing, but Gendron said neither he nor any other principal of the establishment testified. Mendez’s lawyer, Thomas Hanley, addressed the allegations, but he did not refute any of the facts elicited in the testimony of several police officers, according to Gendron.
With City Solicitor John DeSimone arguing the case, the city alleged that police officers encountered patrons smoking hookah in Jaragua Lounge on three occasions – the first of which occurred in early November, just after the transfer of its liquor license was initiated.
On one occasion, on Dec. 22, there was so much hookah smoke in the establishment that it set off a fire alarm, prompting members of the Woonsocket Fire Department to respond with firefighting apparatus. Woonsocket police officers also responded to the automated emergency alarm.
“After clearing out all the unauthorized personnel, we spoke to Deputy Chief (Christopher) Oakland (of the Woonsocket Fire Department) who informed us that smoke from numerous hookah smoking devices inside the club had activated one of the fire alarm system’s smoke detectors located near the alarm system’s control panel,” Officer Alexander Simmons of the WPD reported in that incident.
The manager was instructed to cease and desist from offering patrons hookah, a water pipe that typically looks like an ornate vase with a tube attached to it. The bong-like devices allow users to smoke flavored tobacco – also known as hookah – a practice believed to have originated in India or Persia hundreds of years ago.
Gendron said the sale of hookah is lawful in the city with a proper permit, but there are no active permits in circulation at the present time. Part of the reason, he said, may be that no hookah permit may lawfully remain in circulation unless 52 percent of the licensee’s revenues are generated from the sales of hookah. A number of years ago, a hookah bar opened on Main Street, but it closed its doors after a relatively brief period.
There is nothing to stop Jaragua Lounge from applying for a permit to sell hookah, said Gendron, but the business would eventually have to demonstrate that it is meeting the necessary revenue benchmarks as a condition of maintaining the license.
“They could apply for it,” said Gendron. “If it’s determined that you don’t have 52 percent of your revenue from hookah, then you lose your license.”
Gendron said the Board of License Commissioners put Mendez on notice that it would take a very dim view of another infraction involving hookah.
“It was said in more ways than one, ‘This is your last chance,’” Gendron said. “There won’t be any more tolerance.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo