The first Sweet Smoker’s Zone did not open until November of last year, after its owner decided to close his unsuccessful store in Utica and transfer much of the inventory here, to a wedge-shaped building at 100 E. State St.
The former Smoke Shop and Electronic Connections was renamed and its inventory was refocused on items associated with smoking and products made with hemp cannabinoids called CBD. “I’m glad we moved the store to here,” said Ibraheem Aljamal, the owner. “I’m moving now to Gloversville. I just got a house from the city.”
There will soon be three Sweet Smoker’s Zone shops. The flagship store in Johnstown will be joined, this month or next, by two stores in Gloversville – at 6 Washington St. and 99 Spring St.
“Business has really picked up,” said Christina Thongthip, Aljamal’s stepmother, who also works in the stores. “Compared to Utica, it’s just a lot better here.”
Aljamal, 37, left the city of Ibb, in his native Yemen, in July 2013. He has a master’s degree in computer science, and works full time in information technology for a British defense contractor that has a branch office on the site of the old Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome.
The Utica store was opened as a sideline. Aljamal would work nights and weekends, and members of his extended family would work the day shifts. After six months in business, in the city’s Cornhill section, Aljamal decided Utica had too many storefronts selling the same products.
A friend of his, a fellow Yemeni, told him to consider Johnstown and Gloversville. “He told me there are not many smoke shops in this area,” Aljamal recalled. “So I just followed his advice and came here.”
Thongthip has been working most days in the Johnstown store. Frank Nasser, a cousin of the owner, also takes turns behind the front counter. Aljamal is frequently there on weekends.
To staff the new stores, Thongthip said, they will continue to rely on family. She has six children, and Aljamal is a father of five. Aljamal and Thongthip are nonsmokers, and Nasser said he lights up only occasionally.
“But I know these products,” Thongthip said, leading a tour of the store and discussing the different sales items. “I do my research.”
“We have some really good customers that we trust,” Aljamal added. “If they don’t like a product, we just send it back to the companies.”
NEAR AND SURPRISINGLY FAR
Most customers live in and around Johnstown, Thongthip said, but in recent weeks they have had patrons drive to the store from more distant points. “Some people have come in from Albany,” she said. “And we have people from Utica and Rome. They traveled here because they know about us from word-of-mouth.”
The Uticans had not been customers of the store when it was open in Utica, she said.
Sweet Smoker’s Zone stocks the corner-store staples of candy, salty snacks and soft drinks. Aljamal said that some neighborhood people are now using the shop to make convenience purchases but these sales remain a small percentage of total revenues.
Over the course of an hour late on a recent morning, none of the customers lingered and none made purchases other than items related to the store’s two top sales categories: smoking products and goods containing CBD.
A young woman wearing a blue dress and heels purchased some cartridges for her E-cigarette. She said she was on her way to a wedding, and scurried outside to the passenger side of a car that was parked at the corner.
Ed Stroud of Fort Plain said he was rushing off to make his tee time on a golf course. In his hands were some flavored vaping products for which he had just spent $110.
“The man is running a great business,” Stroud said as he nodded towards Aljamal. “He’s looked around to see how he can help people. If we had more people coming in and doing the same kind of stuff, all the towns around here would be doing better. I think it’s a positive sign.”
Allan Stevens had driven in from Amsterdam. It was during an earlier drive, he said, that he first noticed the store, circled the block, and then came inside for a look. He said he had become a regular customer. On this morning, Stevens had returned to buy some CBD products.
“This kind of stuff has saved my life from pain meds,” Stevens said, lifting up a sleeve to reveal a heavily-scarred forearm. “These are the most polite people I’ve ever met. I don’t go to any other smoke shop.”