Dhiren Shah spent the past 20 years working toward and then creating a business without peer in Northwest Indiana.
From humble origins running a storefront tobacco shop with his father, Shah, a first-generation immigrant from India, has risen to become the owner-operator of Karma Cigar Bar in Merrillville.
When it opened in 2016, Karma was the only dedicated cigar lounge in Lake County that offered a retail shop, bar and kitchen service.
It's grown into a destination spot for pairing fine cigars with top-shelf whiskey, bourbon and other spirits.
Today, Shah’s vision of a luxury cigar lounge has smokers from Chicago and its northern suburbs skipping the city in favor of a drive down Interstate 80/94 to tap into the high-end smoking experience.
And it's also a known gathering spot for Region power brokers, including government and political officials.
‘Something completely different’
In many ways, Karma Cigar Bar is a blend of personal and professional influences the 41-year-old Shah has developed over the years.
The carefully selected inventory of cigars for sale — one of the largest retail offerings in the state — comes from a deep knowledge of premium tobacco gleaned over two decades in the industry. But the inspiration for what would become Karma dates back even further, to when Shah was just a shy child in India.
“As a child, I was very introverted, and I didn’t have many friends,” he said. “So I wanted to do a business which is very socially inviting, and I wanted to be a social person. This business fit right in with that.”
As Shah tells it, the Karma concept was forming in his mind long before the lounge opened its doors.
In 2004, Shah and his father were operating a small retail tobacco shop next to the Walgreens on Merrillville Road. Even then, Dhiren Shah envisioned taking the business in a new direction — to a place that would be unique in the area.
“I didn’t want to do anything with a generic tobacco shop. I wanted to have a next-generation business model,” he said.
In 2014, the Shahs lost their lease on the Merrillville Road location, forcing them to scramble to find a new place to set up shop. What could have been a disaster for the business instead “came as a blessing,” Shah said, as it paved the way for him to realize his vision for a luxury cigar lounge.
Leveraging existing banking relationships and a loan from the Small Business Administration, the Shahs procured Karma’s current site at 850 W. 81st Ave. in 2015, giving them a prime frontage location on U.S. 30 in Merrillville. After a yearlong renovation, Karma Cigar Bar opened its doors to the public.
Karma’s interior aesthetic is classic cigar lounge with some modern twists. In the middle of the open floor plan, a full-service bar stocked with many premium liquors anchors a central gathering space for patrons to sip drinks and converse with friends.
Supple leather furniture sits atop dark hardwood floors, surrounded by humidor cases holding hundreds of premium cigars. On the right, high-top tables and flat screen TVs mirror a high-end sports bar, where guests can snack on in-house pub food while watching a game.
Above it all is suspended a state-of-the-art ventilation system, which keeps the air surprisingly clear even when the room is filled with cigar smokers.
As Shah envisioned, Karma has become more than just a retail tobacco shop with a bar attached.
It is also a social club, with memberships that include discounts on retail items and access to exclusive industry events. And the lounge doubles as an event space, hosting a wide array of events from vendor showcases to charity fundraisers.
“This is a one-of-a-kind place in the Region — from Chicago to Indiana,” Shah said.
Karma's appeal as a meeting place is not lost on some of Lake County's top political leaders, who use it as an alternative to the nearby government center in Crown Point. One frequent patron, Sheriff Oscar Martinez, says the lounge is "conducive to doing business" with his command staff and other public officials.
Martinez also supports Karma on his personal time because Dhiren Shah's journey as an immigrant entrepreneur reminds him of a similar path taken by his parents, both immigrants from Mexico.
"I respect Dhiren very much, respect the idea that he's an immigrant who came to the U.S.," Martinez said. "For him to take that chance, to buy that building and make it better, I really admire that."
A Chicagoland destination
Cigar smokers in The Region are beginning to learn one of Chicagoland’s best cigar lounges sits right in their own backyard.
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“We created a destination — it’s a very urban-ish, metropolitan business that we created here in Northwest Indiana,” he said. “You don’t have to go to Chicago. Now Chicago people come here to get the experience.”
Karma is the first cigar lounge in Lake County to offer full bar and kitchen service along with a dedicated smoking area. And because the Shahs have invested heavily in their ventilation system, the atmosphere inside Karma is pleasant enough for customers to eat, drink and even work remotely without being overwhelmed by smoke.
“It’s a really nice combination for cigar smokers — it’s their Mecca,” Dhiren Shah said. “They want to have good food, top-shelf liquor and a good exhaust system.”
While Karma’s material comforts are clearly a popular draw for first-time customers, the social atmosphere is what keeps them coming back.
Crown Point resident David Hicks comes to Karma every Thursday with a group of mostly retired friends. For Hicks and his friends, the lounge offers something very few places can — a public gathering place to enjoy the fundamentally social act of cigar smoking, which to some extent has taken on a social stigma along with cigarette smoking.
“They like to compare it to cigarettes, but it’s not the same,” Hicks said in defense of premium cigar smokers. “Cigars bring people together — cigarettes don’t.”
What makes Karma special, according to Hicks, is it facilitates human interaction in a way conventional bars don’t. Cigar smoking may be the focus, but it blends perfectly with conversation on a deeper level, he said.
“A lot of people here tend to shy away from bars,” Hicks said. “They like to have a drink, but they don’t like the bar atmosphere where it’s sometimes loud or there’s stuff going on that’s not fun.
“It’s a little more of a one-on-one relationship here,” he added.
For other patrons, Karma’s relaxed-yet-convivial vibe is the perfect antidote to the stresses of life. Dr. Alex Kristevski, also of Crown Point, said Karma offers its customers “personal therapy” with fellow patrons and friendly staff.
“I think it’s better than going to a psychologist or psychiatrist, personally,” he said. “I come here almost every day right from work just to unwind.”
Like many of Karma’s repeat customers, Kristevski has known the Shahs since they opened their first retail tobacco business. He said the evolution of their operation from a humble storefront to the Karma lounge has been an inspiring journey.
“I encouraged (Dhiren), if he really wanted to get into this business, to open an upper-tier, high-end place, and he did,” Kristevski said. “It’s the nicest place in the area.”
Like many business owned by first-generation immigrants, Karma is a true family affair.
While Dhiren Shah is the chief executive and face of the business, his father, Jasvant, and his wife, Arpita, play essential roles, he said.
Dhiren Shah attributes his entrepreneurial acumen to Jasvant, who has been a small business owner since he brought the family to America in 1998. Perhaps the most important business lesson the elder Shah passed on to his son is the courage to act on a good idea.
“He’s there for moral support and his experience in business and life,” Dhiren said of his father, who is semi-retired but still helps out around the shop. “We’re not afraid of developing something from scratch. That’s the mentorship I got from my dad.”
Jasvant Shah even provided the inspiration for the bar’s unique brand name, according to Dhiren.
“I got the Karma concept from my father,” he said. “Believe in Karma, and don’t expect the fruits. You do your deeds, and the result will follow you.”
At Dhiren’s side running the business is Arpita, who handles purchasing and customer service for the lounge. Like her husband, Arpita is constantly checking in on patrons, lending a personal touch that makes Karma feel more like a living room than a bar.
The Shahs aim to maintain that familial atmosphere even as they build on the Karma concept. With nearly 9,000 square feet of undeveloped space in the building, Dhiren Shah envisions turning the lounge into a “national destination” for cigar enthusiasts.
“We have a vision to have a private lounge in the basement, and a full-scale bar and restaurant area,” he said. “Maybe dueling pianos, projector screens to watch NFL games, or golf simulators in the back. Those are the raw ideas I want to implement over time.”
But no matter how large the Karma brand eventually grows, Dhiren Shah said, it will remain true to its origin as a place for people from all walks of life to come together.
“This is a place for all, from blue collar to white collar,” he said. “We give the same service to everybody.”