Smoking has become mostly a private activity in Washington, yet a new business in Olympia gives cigarette aficionados a place to gather while they enjoy a nicotine fix.
The place is Volcano Vapor Cafe, and the cigarettes being enjoyed there are electronic ones, filled with a nicotine solution that is converted into vapor by a heating element. The Volcano Vapor Café opened Dec. 29, and celebrated a "grand opening" Jan. 1.
"Up until now, vaping has kind of been a subculture," says co-owner Zakk Johnston. "It's starting to go mainstream."
Johnston says it's been fun to see customers connecting. "I had a guy in a three-piece suit come in right next to a skateboard punk," he says, "and they were talking about their tools."
It's legal to vape - lingo for the use of electronic cigarettes - in public places in Thurston County and in bars, private workplaces and businesses that promote e-cigarettes in Pierce County. King County, on the other hand, banned the use of e-cigarettes everywhere cigarettes are banned in 2010.
Olympia's Volcano Vapor Café is the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest - and one of the few in the United States.
And its arrival might be good news for coffee fans as well as the vaping crowd. The cafe - an all-ages space that stays open until 2 a.m. daily - serves good coffee and espresso drinks (Connor also owns Mocha Magic in Lacey). Tea and doughnuts are also on the menu. Soon to come: sandwiches and possibly live entertainment. That's something of note in Olympia, where good espresso drinks are hard to find after 6 p.m. and nearly impossible after 9 p.m.
As they talk, Johnston and co-owner John Conner emit the occasional clouds of vapor instead of smoke.
The solution comes in 29 flavors from tobacco and menthol to sweet tart and cherry, and in different levels of nicotine. It also comes nicotine-free for those who just want the experience.
The guys set me up a nicotine-free coconut, as my only tobacco experience was lighting up a few cigarettes "borrowed" from my dad when I was in junior high.
The first puff was like inhaling a scented candle right into my lungs. (Cough.) Johnston suggests just taking the smoke into my mouth, and after a few tries, I want a few more. I also sample milk chocolate, which tastes like a Tootsie Roll. My throat is a little scratchy later, but I'd try it again: There was something fun about the act of "smoking," maybe the same thing that appealed back in 7th grade.
While I'm in the cafe, Annie Lucille wanders in from the salon next door to sample a nicotine-free solution. Samples are free, and a tray of five flavors to vape on the premises is $12.99.
"I don't smoke," Lucille says. "I like the mint to keep my breath fresh."
Maybe, or maybe the cute male "vaporista" is at least part of the attraction.
And it's that experience that attracts smokers - including those who want to quit.
"Part of the hard part of quitting smoking is it's a three-part addiction," Johnston says. "Smokers have an oral addiction, they have a mental addiction and they have a physical addiction."
He and Conner are both former smokers who now only vape. And others they tell me about who've quit smoking - including Conner's mom and both of Johnston's parents, all of whom smoked for 50 years or more - are still vaping, too, although they suggest the e-cigarettes could be used as a smoking cessation device with the option to gradually reduce nicotine levels.
No studies have been done on the effects of nicotine alone on the body, the guys say, and an Internet search didn't turn up anything. (King County banned electronic cigarettes not due to proven health risks but on the grounds that they'd increase the tolerance for and instances of public smoking.) E-cigarette manufacturers are not permitted to make health claims; however, Volcano brand solutions come from FDA-approved labs, so at least those inhaling them are avoiding tar and other toxic substances present in tobacco smoke.
"Who knows what nicotine does?" Conner says. "But if you're going to keep doing nicotine, this is the healthiest way to do it, in our opinion."
The men say their wives enjoy the fact that they no longer smell like tobacco smoke. "We're portable air fresheners," Johnston jokes. "It's like, ‘Change flavors because I want this smell now.' "
Volcano Vapor Café
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
1222 Capitol Way N., Olympia
360.539.7466 or olympiavolcano.com