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Kava bar opens across from St. Petersburg High School

It's muddy and bitter. It's served in a coconut shell. And it may or may not promote world peace, turn kids into zombies or spark a chain big enough to rival Starbucks.

But whatever it does, students at St. Petersburg High can claim to be among the first in the country to have tried it.

The stuff is called kava (pronounced kah-vuh). And one of the only kava bars in the United States (there may be 10 of them) opened two weeks ago across from the school, where for years a drive-in hamburger eatery drew students.

Can you say instant buzz?

Bula Kafe, a cross between a coffeehouse and a tiki hut, is drawing a steady trickle of students, most curious but some already sold. They down the tongue-numbing drink like a shot, then chase it with Ice Mints and caramel squares.

"It just chills you out," said junior Tim Parkhurst, 16. "It's perfect for right after school."

Perfect, too, for inspiring the occasionally alarmist headline, and a fearful letter to the St. Petersburg Times.

"There appears to be quite a few high school students hanging around this place and consuming this beverage," says the letter, sent anonymously on Nov. 25. "I am hoping that the newspaper could investigate this further and warn the community before someone gets injured."

Kava is legal. It's not a controlled substance. There is no age limit.

St. Petersburg police have no plans to crack down on it. The principal at St. Petersburg High hasn't heard any concerns.

But in large amounts, it can get you zonked.

"Are people going to come here and drink kava and become intoxicated? Absolutely," said Jeffrey Bowman, an engineer by training who helped start a kava bar in Boca Raton. But "if they're trying to drink too much, we'll discourage it."

Especially if they're high school students.

"We'll tell them to get their parents and come back later," he said.

Laurent Olivier, one of Bowman's partners in the Boca venture, is the owner of Bula Kafe. He is from New Caledonia, a place in the South Pacific that was racked by civil war and ethnic strife in the 1980s. After the war, 200 kava bars sprang up in the capital city, and life changed for the better, he said.

"The kava really relaxed the population," said Olivier, 43, who lives in Vero Beach and works for a biofuel company.

To bring the same vibe to a stressed-out United States, he, Bowman and another partner opened the Boca bar — which they say was the country's first kava bar — in 2002. They envision new ones spreading like Starbucks.

Bula Kafe is their pilot franchise.

Olivier said he scouted Florida's other big cities before a real estate agent persuaded him to check out St. Petersburg. "More hippie people there," the agent told him.

It's sheer coincidence that he landed across from St. Petersburg High, he said. But a fair amount of customers are coming from the school.

Olivier said people shouldn't worry. Teenagers can drink kava, just like they drink coffee or tea, he said. He said his three children — ages 12 to 15 — all drink it.

Kava is "the opposite of coffee," said St. Petersburg High senior Joey Kerr, 17. "You just want to relax and hang out."

He slurped down a few the other day and drove home. "I was fine," he said.

Kava is made from the dried roots of a shrubby plant that's cultivated in South Pacific gardens. People there have imbibed it for centuries.

Bowman said he buys about 50 tons a year from exotic locales like Tonga and Vanuatu. Some species of kava are potent enough to bowl people over, he said, but that's not the kind the bar serves for $3.75 to $5.50 per shell.

He knows what people are thinking. When the first bar opened in Boca, news stories screamed, Are your kids getting high on kava?

Police stopped by. Geraldo did a show.

"I've heard it all," he said.

"It's not a drug," he said.

But it can be overdone.

People can drink enough kava to be charged with DUI, Bowman said. In eight years, he said he has driven 200 people home.

The other night, a high school student came to Bula Kafe and ordered kava. But he was "not looking right," so the bartender asked if he was on something. Yes, the kid said, Xanax.

"Come back another night," they told him.

Ron Matus can be reached at or (727) 893-8873.

fast facts

More about kava

• The kava drink is made from the roots of a shrubby plant, Piper methysticum, that is cultivated in the South Pacific.

• Its effects are often described as relaxing and stress relieving. It makes the tongue and mouth temporarily numb, almost like Chloraseptic spray.

• The Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning about using kava supplements — a concentrated form used in dietary supplements and as a remedy for anxiety — because of links to liver damage.

• In some South Pacific cultures, the drink is consumed at weddings, festivals, holidays and other ceremonial occasions.

Sources:, National Institutes of Health

Kava bar opens across from St. Petersburg High School

12/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 4:31pm]
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