Q: When is a bar not a bar?
A: When it serves no alcohol but provides a chill, happy atmosphere anyway.
Port Charlotte’s newest bar — Kava Culture — sounds a lot like a coffeehouse. And it sits next to Gatorz Bar & Grill, a full-on bar.
As a kava bar, it is neither.
Entrepreneurial Naples sisters Caroline and Jacqueline Rusher have transformed a former breakfast café into an eye-catching organic beverage bar, with comfy couches, reggae, string lights and a brand-new white-sand beach.
Charlotte County’s first kava bar feels as laid-back as a coffeehouse.
The difference? It serves euphoric beverages with unique, controversial ingredients.
They’re made with kava, kratom (usually pronounced KRAY-tum) and hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD)—natural substances already legally available at local vape and tobacco stores, but drawn from plants that tend to raise regulatory eyebrows.
Kava Culture also serves uncontroversial kombucha tea and cold-brewed coffee, but those aren’t most customers’ reason for visiting.
What are kava and kratom?
Kava is the root of a Polynesian shrub in the pepper family. Like premium coffees, Kava Culture’s kava is single-origin, grown by a Fijian farmer known by the owners.
It’s traditionally ground, squeezed and served in ceremonies around, which each South Pacific island has developed its own culture of connection and warm, family feeling.
Caroline explained, “The legend goes that, thousands of years ago, warlike tribes drank kava and then all the fighting stopped.”
Even today, kava helps people unwind and acts as a social lubricant like alcohol, but without inebriation or aggressiveness. Users report experiencing a state of happy, relaxed attentiveness and a mild analgesic effect.
By itself, kava has a gritty texture like muddy water, so kava-tenders mix it with more palatable organic flavorings like agave, caramel, dried peanut butter and berry.
It’s served cold, in a faux coconut shell, and tradition holds that one should respect the drink by not downing it alone. So, kava bar patrons raise their shells together and cry, “Bula!”— a Fijian version of “Cheers!”
Kava’s more controversial cousin is kratom, a psychoactive substance also sold in kava bars.
Derived from a Southeast Asian evergreen leaf, related to coffee and similar in taste to green tea, kratom is brewed. Unlike mellow kava, different strains of kratom can energize, relax or relieve pain, reportedly helping users focus and aiding in opioid withdrawal.
Many bars, many experiences
Borne along on the rising wave of plant-based living and natural, non-big-pharma remedies, the Rusher sisters have wasted no time introducing Southwest Florida to the kava culture popping up nationwide.
After opening their first store in Bonita Springs less than a year ago, they opened a second in Fort Myers in January. Coming next are bars in Fort Myers Beach and Naples, after which they plan to franchise.
“We’re excited about opening more because we’ve seen the good they’ve done in people’s lives,” said Caroline.
She explained, “In the past, kava bars could be male-only dive bars. We like to think that we’ve taken them more mainstream. We wanted everyone to feel welcome — women, people with children, retirees, college students.”
Previously, both sisters worked in high-stress environments — Jacqueline in finance and Caroline as a chief stewardess on private yachts.
Like many others, Caroline went from “What’s kava?” to “This is awesome!” overnight.
She said, “I couldn’t sleep and wasn’t doing well. So a friend introduced me to kava and I slept well for the first time in years.”
Jacqueline was a Type A who wound down with a nightly glass of wine. Four months after starting the bars with her sister, she resigned her job and, before she realized it, wasn’t buying wine anymore.
“I just fell in love with the relaxed vibe and the community behind it,” she said.
Their friend Laurence Baboolal, 48, of Naples, who has multiple health issues including severe pain from diabetic neuropathy, admits to being a heavy user of kava and kratom, drinking watered-down versions throughout the day.
“I had high anxiety, severe pain and inflammation when I first tried kava and kratom, but they really helped me, my quality of life improved and I started feeling much better. Even my doctor said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing!’
“I’d rather take something natural instead of all the medications I used to take,” he said. “And I don’t drink alcohol anymore at all.”
He has his blood tested regularly and has seen no ill effects on his kidneys or liver.
Nevertheless, opinions are sharply divided over the substances.
“Kava and kratom are completely vegan, with no animal products, and very new to this area,” said Mike Young, founder of Naples nonprofit aPlantBasedDiet.org. “They’re controversial because they’re plants with medicinal effects. But public opinion is changing, and they’re getting more accepted.”
Dr. Jaimela Dulaney, local cardiologist and plant-based wellness advocate, disagrees. “These are dangerous unregulated substances. Liver failure and other potential side effects (are possible), not to mention if paired with alcohol or prescription meds.”
In March 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory on the potential risk of liver injury from dietary supplements containing kava. Most kava bars advise patrons not to consume alcohol while drinking it, because both are processed through the liver.
Amid growing use as an opioid replacement, kratom has been banned in Thailand, parts of Europe and seven states: Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.
Sarasota County, Denver, San Diego and Alton and Jerseyville, Illinois, have also banned it.
Dr. Christopher R. McCurdy, medicinal chemist and behavioral pharmacologist at the University of Florida, told interviewers in the 2018 kratom documentary “A Leaf of Faith”: “We need to know where we stand on (kratom’s) abuse potential, on what doses we should be giving, how we need to be giving it and if we can have a standardized material that we know meets guidelines for standardization, so that every time you give that product, you know it’s exactly what you signed up for. I don’t think it’s the be-all end-all, but I certainly think it’s a solution that will help people really interested in getting off opiates.”
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) targeted kratom in 2016, but public outcry and lack of conclusive scientific evidence have so far prevented making it a Schedule I controlled substance.
The Rusher sisters serve only customers age 18 and older, and provide reading materials to educate them.