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Fast growing brand brings Kava Culture to the beach

January 24, 2019
By JESSE MEADOWS ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Will Fort Myers Beach get sucked into the kava vortex?

Sisters and kava entrepreneurs Caroline and Jacqueline Rusher hope so.

What started in 2017 as one kava bar in Bonita Springs has grown to four in the last 13 months.

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“Kavatender” Sara Taybor strains a freshly-brewed batch of the drink that many say provides relief from anxiety and chronic pain.


Their fourth Kava Culture location at 17979 San Carlos Boulevard opened two weeks ago, and they think it's a good fit for the community.

"We actually had people asking us to come to Fort Myers Beach... we've heard there's a lot of people that have problems with alcohol and they want a sober, safe place to go," said Jacqueline.

Instead of alcohol, they serve kava, a plant in the pepper family from the South Pacific islands that has been used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes for centuries, and kratom, a leaf in the coffee family traditionally used in Southeast Asia to boost energy and concentration.

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The two substances are brewed into teas and mixed into creative concoctions by "kavatenders."

Many kava drinkers report feeling less stress, relief from chronic pain, and a general sense of well-being.

"It's very relaxing, it makes you want to talk and socialize without being inebriated like alcohol. You can still drive, you can still function, you can still go back to work," she said.

But the social atmosphere of a kava bar can be addictive.

"We call it the vortex. The kava vortex. You get sucked in and you try and leave three times and then you get into another conversation. It's just so fun," she said.

Kava has become a growing trend across the country in recent years, and bars like Kava Culture can currently be found in 18 states.

An avid kava drinker from St. Petersburg, where the bars are popular, found his way to Kava Culture while visiting the Fort Myers Beach area.

"I Google-searched, 'kava bar near me'," said Robert Sawyer.

He drinks kava because it helps with his neck pain and makes him feel good.

"It's a great community. You never have fights in kava bars," he said, a to-go cup in each hand.

Caroline agreed.

She started drinking kava six years ago to help with insomnia while working a high-stress job on chartered yachts.

"I just fell in love with the community. It's so different than going to a regular bar or a coffee shop, because everyone talks to each other and hangs out and wants to get to know you," she said.

So she called her sister, who worked in finance, and told her that she wanted to open a kava bar.

"I had never even tried kava," Jacqueline said.

But she was swayed by the numbers - their 12-ounce kava drinks sell for $14 each.

Their venture has been so successful, Jacqueline quit her job and now helps run their venues full time.

"Most of the kava bars are set up by men, so the vibe is a little different, and some of them are not comfortable for females to go there at all," she said.

They wanted to create a family-friendly space where everyone could feel comfortable.

Colorful tapestries adorn the walls and cozy couches are arranged to encourage conversation.

There's a pool table, an assortment of board games for wholesome fun, and a bamboo beach bar in the back where kavatenders ladle teas from giant buckets, and guests can sink their toes in the sand under twinkling fairy lights.

"It's fun to see all walks of life talking to each other. You see young kids talking to older retired couples, and normally they wouldn't, but they can learn so much from each other," she said.

While recent studies have shown kava can be helpful in managing generalized anxiety, the safety of kratom is more contested.

The FDA has issued warnings about the herb, claiming it has addictive properties and has resulted in numerous deaths.

But Caroline, a self-describe kratom activistist, said much of that backlash is due to misinformation and a lack of regulation, which means it is often mixed and sold with harmful synthetics.

"We're fighting for (regulation), because the plant on its own is harmless," she said.

A 2018 report by Dr. Jane Babin, a molecular biology and patent law expert, supported that claim.

It stated that the FDA has based its warnings on 44 cases of death over a nine-year period, all of which involved other substances.

For now, kratom remains legal, but it has been banned in a handful of states and cities, including Sarasota.

"A lot of it is just education, and giving people the real story. I think humans are pretty open minded if they're given the real information," Caroline said.

With their brand growing quickly, the sisters plan to franchise once they open five locations.

"We've had a lot of people approach us and say they want to open one, and we keep saying, we'll put you on the list," Jacqueline said.

All of their kava bars are unique in style, but their venue on Fort Myers Beach is the only one to serve food.

They have partnered with Buddha Bowls to serve vegan fare like jackfruit quesadillas and avocado toast every day until midnight.

"We're excited about this one. This is our biggest location so far," said Caroline.

They have plans for Sunday markets, acro-yoga demonstrations, dance parties, and even dog training days.

Just be careful if you go - you might never leave.



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