New smoke shops have hard time gaining steam in Norwalk

Photo of Abigail Brone
Employee Alex Adroit builds a humidor at Mohegan Smoke Shop on North Main Street Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Norwalk, Conn.

Employee Alex Adroit builds a humidor at Mohegan Smoke Shop on North Main Street Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Norwalk, Conn.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

NORWALK — Multiple new smoke shops have popped up in downtown Norwalk in recent months, but the increase in stores doesn’t necessarily mean the demand for smoking products is growing in the area.

Since December, at least two smoke shops opened along North Main Street, offering a variety of products, from vapes to CBD oils, convenience store candy and sodas. However, the increase in availability, has caused the new stores’ sales to suffer.

Majd Jnaidi, part-owner of Mohegan Smoke Shop at 82-84 North Main St., said business has been slow since the store opened. Jnaidi said he regrets opening in Norwalk and would’ve preferred to open in any other town.

“I wish we did not open in Norwalk,” Jnaidi said. “It’s slow. I guess people don’t smoke much in Norwalk.”

In January, a Mohegan Smoke Shop employee was fined $200 for selling electronic nicotine to a minor.

Within weeks of opening, another smoke shop, Smokey Bear, opened about a two-minute walk away, down North Main Street.

Jnaidi said he was surprised by the store’s opening within weeks of his own and did not know it was set to be a smoke shop, as the location was under renovation for months.

“If we knew, we would not have opened,” Jnaidi said. “There’s no reason to open two smoke shops in the same area. They did not know, and we did not know.”

Smokey Bear employee Vakio Alqasami said the store’s owners rented the location seven months ago and opened for business about six weeks ago. Along with the renovations, the store’s opening was put off due to the coronavirus pandemic and concerns the business wouldn’t prosper in the economic climate.

Between the store’s rental and opening, Alqasami said smoke stores began popping up all around the SoNo area.

“When we came there was no smoke shops here, but when we got back, we were like, ‘Wow,’” Alqasami said. “At the moment we are not selling much smoke stuff.”

Despite the lack of tobacco and smoking product sales the increase in stores has brought, Alqasami said Smokey Bear has gotten by largely on its sales of snacks and convenience store goods.

The most purchased items include cookies, fruits and ice cream, Alqasami said. Alongside the snacks, non-nicotine products, such as hookahs and certain vapes, sell well.

“We are not mainly selling the smokes. We’re really selling the hookahs and stuff like that, whatever people need,” Alqasami said. “But if you come to the smoke shop, it’s more like 50 percent smoke shop and 50 percent convenience store.”

Nearby on Connecticut Avenue, part-skate store and part-smoke shop, Utopia, has been in business since 1976.

Store manager Bobby Dorin said he’s unphased by the influx of “cookie-cutter” smoke shops in the area.

“The shops that have been opening in Norwalk are run-of-the-mill, cookie cutter, whereas our primary focus is wellness and CBD,” Dorin said. “These stores opening have very little to no effect on us we’ve been here for 45 years. We’re very progressive.”

Since the pandemic began, Dorin said Utopia has seen many new customers in search of CBD products and stress relief.

“We have seen the largest amount of new customers that we have ever seen,” Dorin said. “Since the pandemic, 25 to 30 customers that have walked in the door have never been here. Part of that is accounted for because people moved from New York to Connecticut.”

Dorin and Alqasami both feel one of the precipitors behind the smoke shop influx is the coronavirus pandemic driving New Yorkers to the suburbs of Connecticut and Norwalk, close to the state’s border along with commuters.

“The same people that go to New York are the same that come here,” Alqasami said. “They work here and live in New York or work in New York and live here. Business right now, with COVID, everyone is just trying to survive and pay rent.”