An entrepreneurial Manatee County couple with a 'get the yes' mindset has pulled off a neat feat: nearing $1 million in annual revenue from a bar that, going against the norm, is open 24 hours a day and doesn't serve alcohol.
Now the pair, Ryan Bodie and Sara Lewis, are looking to expand, either east or north of their current Bradenton location or possibly out of Florida. One reason for looking outside the state, they say, is their concept and niche, selling kava drinks, while trendy and gaining traction in bigger markets, such as Tampa and St. Pete, is a bit misunderstood locally.
Their debut in the space, Kava Social Club on 13th Street in downtown Bradenton, quickly grew out of a mobile tiki hut where it got its start in summer 2019. The mobile unit showed up at flea markets, open houses and music festivals just to get into the community and spread awareness of kava.
Kava, derived from the root or stump of the kava shrub, typically grows on Pacific islands where nutrients in volcanic soil help it flourish. An influx of social clubs have recently popped up in the area offering it in drink form with the vibe of these places similar to a coffee shop where people go to hang out, work and be social.
Before sharing a drink, there's a process of raising the filled coconut shells toward the ceiling before someone yells “Bula!” (a Fiji cheers to good health.) Everyone repeats “Bula!” and then drinks. “You slam it because it tastes like a mud puddle looks,” Bodie says. “It’s very earthy.”
Afterward, Bodie says, “you might feel a little numb. A little tingling. Those are the kavalactones. The one you’re feeling is the only one you can sense and that is kavain.”
When the kavain hits the blood vessels in your mouth, Lewis explains, it causes a tingling and numbing sensation. "We always tell people if you don’t detect a little tingling and numbing, don’t bother to drink your kava.” she says.
"If you’re not detecting that then you’re not getting any of the other stuff which means you’re just drinking nasty mud water for nothing,” Bodie adds.
But now not all of it tastes like that. Their own concoctions include a chocolate-covered strawberry, S’mores and mojito recipes, as well as others.
Lewis with a background as a pharmaceutical engineer and microbiologist still works as a formulation and new product developer for a side gig. But that's not because the business isn’t doing well.
In fact, Bodie says the bar stays busy until 4 or 5 a.m.
The bar brings in, on average, $2,500 to $2,700 in gross revenue a day, the couple says, with projections of $1 million in revenue next year. Their busiest days bring in roughly 200 people — which is good not only for the business, but employees: daytime kavatenders make between $200 to $250 a day, in tips, Bodie says, while nighttime employees bring in anywhere from $350 to $500.
While the bar started with just the two of them, back then only staying open 18 hours a day, their adult-aged children eventually became employees. Now Bodie’s sister and Lewis’ parents are onboard. The family-owned business now has nearly 25 employees. And it’s growing.
In addition to seeking more locations, Bodie and Lewis are starting to tap into the wholesale side of business, by selling other kava bars their products. “The answer’s always yes,” Lewis says.
Unfortunately, the business partners haven’t always been told ‘yes.’ They are technically ready for two new locations, possibly in Lakewood Ranch or Parrish, but they keep hitting the same wall: kava isn't known enough — yet — so some commercial landlords balk at leasing them space.
“I think people misunderstood what it is we’re doing here,” Lewis says. “At night it does have a bar feel, but everybody is sober.”
“It makes people want to play chess,” she adds.
Bodie says if they can't find a space in Florida, other possible locations include Tennessee, Georgia and New York.
“We just want to be the alternative to your neighborhood bar,” Lewis says. “We’re not saying replace the bar. I understand people are going to want to drink beer, wine and liquor. But let us also be across the street for people who don’t want to drink every night.”
One of the keys to the couple's success is the community they built around kava.
At their current location the couple built a stage for karaoke and open mic nights. The bar’s chess following has grown so much it now takes up half of the back patio area. They have a side of the bar where they serve tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos and rice bowls every day from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. The owners hope to eventually provide the taco bar 24/7.
The bar is really just a big playground featuring pinball machines, board games and giant outdoor games like cornhole and KanJam.
The outside patio is busy from 9-10 p.m. through 5-6 a.m. “We found out the other day we need more tables,” Bodie says, adding especially during trivia nights. “Good problems to have.”
“The idea is that kava is an alternative to alcohol,” Lewis says. “At the end of the day, people in the islands where it's grown, rather than sit down and have a beer like in America, they’d sit down and drink kava together. You basically are supposed to sit around for hours with your buddies.”
When Lewis and Bodie were younger, they would stay out late partying. But once they discovered kava, they started spending their nights playing chess rather than drinking alcohol. Then instead of nursing a hangover throughout the weekend, they started discovering other hobbies like mountain biking. “We got our weekend back,” Bodie says.
They started becoming more serious about owning their own kava bar when they saw the effects on Lewis' dad, who had been addicted to opioids from an injury for about 15 years. After a four and half month kava regimen, he’s now been drug free for three years.
“That’s one of the reasons we were like, ‘OK, forget about waiting until we retire,’” Bodie says. “This is helping people. It’s one thing to be like, ‘let’s do this as a lifestyle,’ it’s another thing to stumble upon something that can change people’s lives for the better.”
With the growth in kava bars, more scrutiny, and regulations could be forthcoming, which is fine by Bodie and Lewis — all the more to ensure products are stable and untampered. “It’s so easy to hurt people with things you’re making,” Bodie says. “So bring on the regulations.”
With Lewis' background, the duo are already setting the bar for what regulations should be in place as they already batch-trace their products, a process of tracing products back to the manufacturer, processes and ingredients, so they know exactly what they're selling.
One big set of challenges in getting to where they are now, unsurprisingly, was the pandemic.
“Almost the minute we put in all of our 50% deposits for our buildout, which was very expensive,” Bodie says, “COVID-19 hit.”
They had to decide whether to cancel — essentially losing the $100,000 they put in for deposits — or continue with the plans. “We both felt like people needed this,” he says. “So we decided to push forward.”
It wasn’t easy. With COVID-19, they were only allowed to have one construction worker in there at a time. “So what should have been six weeks took three months,” Bodie says. But with Bodie’s background in production and marketing, building a clientele was the easy part, utilizing a grassroots social marketing campaign. This year, they're adding radio ads and sponsorships.
The entire buildout cost about $187,000, which included equipment and a mural.
“You know how they say homeownership is an endless project?” Lewis asks. “It felt kind of like that.”
All of the work paid off with a number of remote workers choosing to work there. Even other Kava bar owners enjoy hanging out there — the ultimate compliment. “That makes us feel really good," Bodie say, "when you have owners from other bars that want to hang out at your bar."