She-Sha Café & Hookah Lounge, a Blacksburg business that has openly violated Virginia’s restaurant smoking ban for years, will close permanently next month.
“The end of an era has come,” She-Sha posted on Facebook Thursday morning. Owner Paul Santos confirmed the news, adding that the response on social media has been overwhelming.
He said the business was designed to break the mold on hookah lounges, offering a comfortable place for people to get together, meet friends, relax or study.
Virginia Tech students have written theses at the establishment’s tables, he added. It was a popular hangout spot for over a decade, with live music and events.
She-Sha is planning to hold farewell parties around July 12 and 13 next month.
Santos said there are a few reasons for the closure. He has moved to Richmond to start a family, so the commute doesn’t work anymore.
His lease is also up next month, and he knew rent would increase. The business was already barely getting by, so the finances weren’t going to be possible for much longer, he said.
Santos also pointed to the years-long struggle with health officials over Virginia’s laws banning smoking in restaurants.
The business has been accused of violating the law for years with no fines, but Santos said the “continued pressure” wasn’t letting up.
“We don’t want to break any rules, right?” he said. “At some point that’s going to come down in a way that negatively affects the business. And we’re already in that realm of struggling. So it was time to say, ‘You know what, it was an amazing run. We made a lot of good friends and met a lot of good people and had a really, really good time.’”
She-Sha first opened in 2004 as a hookah lounge that offered flavored tobacco products, alcohol and food.
But matters became more complicated in 2009 when Virginia’s restaurant smoking ban went into effect.
By 2010, a complaint was levied against She-Sha for allowing smoking inside. The business was found in violation of the smoking ban, but appealed on the grounds that it was exempt as a tobacco retailer.
The case went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court in 2015, which ruled against She-Sha in a precedent-setting case.
The courts determined that hookah lounges that serve food must abide by the smoking ban just like every other restaurant.
But that didn’t clear the air.
While other hookah lounges have built non-smoking sections and made other changes in order to comply with the law, She-Sha continued with business as usual.
Health inspectors noted smoking-related violations in October 2015, October 2016, June 2017, September 2018 and March 2019, according health inspection records.
The more recent violations sparked letters from the Virginia Department of Health to the Blacksburg Police Department, which has the authority to initiate legal proceedings for smoking ban violations.
Blacksburg Town Attorney Lawrence Spencer wrote the She-Sha owners a letter on April 30, informing them that the town police department had been notified of another violation in March, which might also constitute violations of the town’s own smoking ordinances.
“Can you, or the appropriate person at She-Sha Café, please contact me about this matter?” Spencer’s letter concluded.
She-Sha did not respond, Spencer said Thursday.
Santos said She-Sha doesn’t have the resources to make changes to the building in order to comply with the law.
His only other options were to stop serving food and alcohol, which is half his business, or stop allowing smoking, which is the other half.
Between those issues, his move to Richmond and the increasing rent, it just started to feel like time to move on.
“When you kind of wrap it all up together, it’s like, ‘15 years was a great run.’”