So far, that bet appears to be paying off for the 48-year-old native of Damascus, Syria, who has seen his clientele slowly grow.
Step into his Hookah Cafe late on a Friday or Saturday night, and you'll likely see a contingent of college-age people relaxing, playing cards or backgammon, and sampling some of the more than 40 different flavors of specialized sweetened tobacco.
"If you go to big cities -- New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago -- hookah cafes have been there for a long time," Mustafa said. "I brought it to Erie as something different, something unique. It was the right time and the right idea.
"Since day one, we've been successful," Mustafa said.
A hookah is a water pipe that contains a smoke chamber, bowl, and a hose or hoses.
Sweetened tobacco is mixed with fresh fruit and heated. Its smoke passes through water and is drawn through the rubber hoses to mouthpieces, where it is inhaled.
"I like it. It's a lot smoother than cigarettes, and it tastes a lot better," said Chris Sedwick, 20, of Erie, an Edinboro University of Pennsylvania student who recently attended his first hookah session with friends.
Sedwick estimates he has smoked an average of one pack of cigarettes daily for the past year and a half. He wants to quit smoking cigarettes.
For more than an hour, he puffed on white-grape-flavored tobacco.
"It's smoother, and it tastes really good," he said. "I like putting my tongue where the smoke comes through and tasting it. It's a lot smoother and less harsh on your lungs."
A quality hookah water pipe costs about $300, Mustafa said. Most of the 150 hookah pipes -- each about 2 feet to 3 feet in height -- in his stock range in price from $250 to $300, he said.
He has hookah water pipes with one hose, two hoses and three hoses.
"It's an opportunity to spend time with people," said Eric Matthews, 22, of Erie. "It's rich in flavor; it's an easy smoke, a mild smoke. You do get a bit of a buzz from it."
Mustafa's cafe is open Mondays through Thursdays from 6 p.m. to midnight, and Fridays and Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Mustafa estimates he has about 200 regular customers, including college students, young professionals, middle-aged people, and even a few senior citizens.
Although he sees people of all ages smoking hookah tobacco, about 70 percent of his clients are 18 to 26 years old, he said.
Matthew Durney, 27, of Erie, began smoking hookah tobacco about five years ago and smokes it about once a week.
"At the beginning, part of it was the novelty of it, but the experience itself is very positive. The smoke itself is very cool. It's filtered through water, so the experience of smoking itself is enjoyable that way," Durney said. "It's also one of those things where it's recreational. You don't have to be a regular smoker, and you can come here once in a while and enjoy it."
Mustafa's cafe contains about 10 smoking booths.
Clients can listen to Arabic music and play cards, backgammon, chess. Some bring their own games.
Patrons can purchase Arabic tea, Turkish coffee, cappuccino, soft drinks, and desserts like Middle Eastern baklava.
"I have quit cigarettes for the most part, and in comparison to cigarettes, it's more social," said Jen Kline, 24, of Erie. "We usually have at least two or three smoking with us, and just having conversation and being in the atmosphere is a lot better. When I did smoke cigarettes, it was more me outside by myself smoking."
Kline said she has been smoking hookah tobacco for about three years, and smokes it about once a week.
A typical hookah session lasts from one to two hours, Mustafa said.
The sweetened tobacco comes in more than 40 flavors, including apple, blueberry, grape, strawberry kiwi, mint and lemon mint.
The smoking mixture is usually 40 percent tobacco and 60 percent fruit. The tobacco is mixed with fruit and is packaged that way.
The cost for one person to smoke at Mustafa's cafe is $9.99; for two people, $13.99, and for three people, $20.99. Each price includes a tobacco packet and unlimited charcoal.
Foil is placed over the tobacco after it is placed in the bowl, and small, round charcoal pieces are put on top of the foil to ensure slow burning.
"We take almost 45 minutes to an hour to really smoke a hookah," Mustafa said.
But studies on hookah smoking indicate it is not safer than cigarette smoking.
Nearly one-third of U.S. college students have smoked tobacco from a hookah, according to a recent national study led by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Researchers surveyed more than 100,000 students from 152 U.S. universities that participated in the National College Health Assessment in 2008 and 2009.
The study's findings, announced in June, revealed 30.5 percent of respondents had used a hookah to smoke, compared with 34.6 percent who had smoked cigarettes, 28.6 percent who smoked cigars and 10.6 percent who used smokeless tobacco.
"This was the first national study of prevalence of hookah tobacco smoking," said Brian Primack, associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine.
Primack, the study's lead author, also is director of the university's program for research on media and health.
"We hadn't had any large-scale epidemiological data," Primack said. "This is a relatively new phenomenon. This is the most recent stuff out there."
Primack said the study revealed two major findings.
"Hookah tobacco usage is quite prevalent," he said. "It jumped to No. 2 in terms of the way people, in our sample, are putting tobacco in their bodies. Cigarettes are still No. 1. Hookah smoking jumped ahead of cigars and smokeless tobacco.
"However, the most striking finding was how consistent rates of hookah tobacco smoking were across factors such as geographic region, university size and university setting," he said.
Many hookah smokers, Primack said, believe it is a safer alternative to other forms of tobacco because they think the water filters out some or much of the smoke's toxic compounds.
That isn't the case, he said.
"You look at the hookah water pipes, and you have these beautiful, intricately carved pipes with fancy hoses," Primack said. "There are a lot of myths about hookah smoking, and one is that it's more pleasant and more healthy, but the biochemical results just don't support that."
A World Health Organization study on hookah smoking in 2005 concluded that even after smoke has passed through water, the smoke produced by a water pipe contains high levels of toxic compounds, including carbon monoxide, heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals.
The same study also concluded that a typical one-hour hookah water pipe smoking session "involves inhaling 100 to 200 times the volume of smoke inhaled with a single cigarette."
"The smoke passing through the water makes it much easier to take nice long, deep puffs that you would not be able to do with cigarettes," Primack said. "The smoke in hookah tobacco is less hot and less dry."
The World Health Organization study also concluded that, because water pipe tobacco is sweetened and flavored, "the sweet smell and taste of the smoke may explain why some people, especially young people, who otherwise would not use tobacco, begin to use water pipes."
Primack said the flavored tobacco makes it attractive, especially to people who are not seasoned nicotine users.
"This is marketed to boys and girls who are used to candy-flavored everything," Primack said.
Mustafa, the cafe owner, says "smoking is smoking. Nicotine is nicotine. I cannot deny that. Generations of people in the Middle East grow up with it."
Sedwick said he plans to continue his attempts to quit cigarette smoking but will likely continue hookah smoking.
"I do plan on doing some research into hookah smoking to find out some more about it," Sedwick said. "At the current moment, I think it's a little bit better than cigarettes because of the water. But if a study says something different, then I will also try and cut down on my hookah smoking, too."
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com