Dennis McKinley: Amplifying Smoke Culture

Dennis McKinley: Amplifying Smoke Culture

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SUAVV Magazine: I mean it’s, for me, it’s like a proud moment. You’d like to see someone who is just taking the game and changing it. And I mean, you have The Original Hot Dog Factory and then you have CRU as well as other ventures that you’re involved in and it’s like, no disrespect to Steve Francis, but you are the franchise. I don’t know many other people who are jumping in on that scale.

Dennis McKinley: You know, I appreciate that love man. You know, I started a long time ago as a Subway franchisee. Then I bought another one. I’m like, man, you know, this is genius, man. Because regardless of what I make, Subway is making money… Regardless. Right? They teach you the game. They give you the tools to succeed. They help you succeed. They still make money. I said, man, this is genius. I was blessed to have one of my first mentors, she was one of the first black woman-owned McDonald franchisees in Detroit, still my good friend. I worked for her. I watched what she did. And I just always knew at some point, man, if I had a good concept, man, I would, you know, help other people get in the business. That’s what it’s all about. Being a business is hard. You know, people call me every day. I ain’t got a new idea. I’m like, look, having a new idea is cool. But, have you ever done this before? Do you want to be in the burger business? Have you ever worked at Five Guys, worked at McDonald’s? Your idea is only a piece of it, man. You’ve got to execute. So before you get into ideas, go work for somebody who is already doing it and see, you may not want it. Maybe you’ll want to franchise something instead of flipping some burgers, it’s too hard. So, you know you get a good concept, man. You can franchise help somebody get in business, help people. You know, Help people not make the mistakes you made. I mean, that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.

SUAVV Magazine: Does it get challenging for you with having the notoriety and people coming to you all the time for advice?

Dennis McKinley

Dennis McKinley: Nah, man. I love helping people. And I’ve been in that position, right? I mean you only get what you give. And also on the other side of that, it’s a little saying, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”  Not only me, but my whole team and my other franchise partners, have a responsibility to give back to the community and help other folks. It ain’t all about you. We ain’t the only hookah spot in the city. There’s going to be more after us. Right. And they will call me and they asked me stuff. I don’t mind helping folks because they’ll go to CRU today. They’ll go through tomorrow. Maybe they’ll start their own. It’s about all of us helping each other and building an ecosystem around you know what it is, lounge, smoke culture, and nightlife.

SUAVV Magazine: I think that’s the thing, we get stuck in that competitive culture with each other so much that you’re not willing to help anybody. 

Dennis McKinley: And you need to be competitive and don’t get me wrong. However,  you got to understand what competition really is and how competition helps you. People laugh about Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s wars. But they all help each other. Like if you dis my burger, is yours good. That makes consumers go to you to see. You know, I agree, man, we gotta do better. Not only is this black culture community, but everybody just working together and understanding what competition is, helping each other out when and where needed sharing information. Right. All that man. It’s very important.

SUAVV Magazine: Yeah. And I saw that you were looking to open a location on Old National Highway. When I thought about it, I realized that there are no lounges of that caliber on Old National. There’s nothing down here that has that “smoke culture” to it. Was that an easy decision? and is that going to be a bigger location since there is nothing else down here?

Dennis McKinley: Yeah. You know, Old National was tough, man. The City of South Fulton man makes it very difficult to do business out there. You know, but they got to understand man that the revenue degenerated in that corridor man, it’s a lot of clubs out there, man. That’s doing their thing. They’re paying a lot of money in taxes every month. And there’s a lot of young black folks over there. What do you want us to do? Do you want us to move to Decatur? Do you want us to move to Atlanta? So The City of South Fulton’s got some work to do in regards to how they feel about nightlife and how important it is to them, to that city. Well, you know, every city is like, man, you know, we talked to cities where they don’t have hookah lounges or they don’t understand what they are. And they automatically think, oh, problems, drugs, smoke. Like, and we’ve got to educate them folks and tell them what CRU is and what CRU is not. So, you know, unfortunately, I do it in our own backyard too, but that’s what makes a city great, you know? We live in a city like Atlanta, it’s very progressive. We’ve always been progressive. We move culture. We show other cities around this country. You know, what’s what, and what’s not in regards to black culture so we can, I’m happy to be in Atlanta man. We, you know, we’ve taught D.C. that, we’ve taught Charlotte that,  we’ve taught Houston that to a certain degree. Because Houston is an amazing market. Their nightlife is amazing. Right. But it was different with hookah. CRU is different in regards to hookah. You know, the nightlife out there is amazing, but we focus on smoke culture. Right. It’s different. So we’ve had the opportunity to teach other cities how to blend nightlife, food, drinks, and hookah without just thinking like, oh, all they do is smoke, and smoke weed. And I have to correct them to get them to understand that it’s more than that.

SUAVV Magazine: Yeah. And that’s the, I think that’s the dope part. You have the culture when it comes to hookah, but you blend the small plates, the specialty drinks, hookah, and then you have your specialty hookah. When you about it, like you typically, you get a hookah and a drink, you know? You may not order food because it may not be on point. For CRU, you all check the boxes so that even if you don’t smoke you can still go there for a great time and feel that your money is well spent.

CRU Urban Lounge

Dennis McKinley: Yeah. You sit at the bar and hang with your friends to have a good time. The music is still going to be poppin. Right. You know, that’s been important, you know? We didn’t want to go crazy on the food. We got small plates. You’re not going to get a full meal here, but you can get two or three things and be cool. 

SUAVV Magazine: You’ve grown to this point. And now with you going into different cities, you’re sitting in with city officials, different commissioners, things like that. Did you ever see that as being a part of your future and how has it impacted your business outlook? 

Dennis McKinley: We didn’t, man. but you know, once we started to scale, we immediately saw how important it was to get involved with the city government. Right. We knew immediately. We knew because these guys just didn’t understand what was going on. And a lot of these guys in the city government, man, no disrespect, these guys are 40, 50, 60 years old. Their idea of what smoking is is different than what we think of it as part of our culture, man, it’s still taboo for them. Like, oh, y’all smoking over there. It was so much work put out into the consumer market about not smoking, smoking kills, smoking causes cancer, right? People are like, Hey, it’s like, oh, I’m scared as hell to smoke. Right. Don’t bring it to my community. But look, this is what it is. I mean, young folks smoke marijuana and everything else, man. And this is what it is. And if you didn’t know, in California, marijuana has been legal, I believe, for about 10 years or something. Yeah. They don’t have any problems out there. Then you look at that case study and see why it’s important. All right. So, it’s always fun to go to city governments and talk to them about what smoking is, what it isn’t, you know, why it’s not too dangerous to smoke and drink at the same time. Right. So now, we’re having those conversations.

SUAVV Magazine: How do you balance your day? Because again, you have a lot going on and there are numerous moving parts in your life and career.

Dennis McKinley: I think it’s very important to make sure you’ve got a great team. People who can execute, who love the brand like you do, and love to work like you do. That’s the only way it’s going to work, man. You know people talking about getting married and like being equally yoked. I think the same thing has to be put in when you got business relationships. And that’s from your executives, down to your managers, down to your employees. Everybody gotta be on the same page or you’re gonna have a difficult time balancing anything. So I’m up early. I’m up at seven. From 7 to 8, I’m normally meditating and then get myself together. From like 8 to 10, I plan my day or go over what I need to do for the day. Then I get to the office about 10, and we get popping and don’t leave there until about 7 to 8 at night. This is every day, you know? Even if I am out of town. So we have a work culture here, man. And getting stuff done. You know, we could have been at maybe three locations if we just coasted, but we don’t have time for that. You know, we had to go and say, look, we’re gonna scale these cities. And this is what day we need to do them by. So this worked out for us

SUAVV Magazine: And people think that you’re just sitting back and chillin’ and nobody knows the real work culture that you have.

Dennis McKinley: Yeah, man. It’s about work bro. That’s what it’s all about.

Visit to learn more about CRU and Smoke Culture as well as find the location closest to you. 

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