Krave Kava Bar’s plant-based oasis

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Elizabeth Gardner’s kava bar and lounge space is named for the relaxant extracted from a plant in the black pepper family. (photo by Lauren Barber)

For those abstaining from alcohol or getting off the hard stuff, it’s difficult to scope out a social scene that doesn’t reek of temptation. On a quiet side street between Federal Place and Greene Street in downtown Greensboro, though, there is a place.

It’s Elizabeth Gardner’s kava bar and lounge space, Krave Kava, which is named for the relaxant extracted from the leaves of a plant in the black-pepper family native to the islands of the South Pacific. Gardner opened her first booze-free bar in Carrboro back in March 2015 and her Greensboro location in January 2017.

“People have gotten away from nature and want convenience and an instant fix… and it’s hurting us as a nation,” Gardner says. “I’m drinking and preparing [kava] like Polynesians drink it. I want people to experience that plant in the natural way it was intended. But in America we have a tendency to want to synthesize versions of botanicals and sell it to you rather than, ‘Let’s sit down and drink this muddy water.’ But you only need four ounces to feel good.”

First things first: Neither kava nor kratom — another popular product on Krave shelves — gets you high. Rather than alter perception or cognition, the substances alter mood providing a calming, gently euphoric sensation. The swampy mixtures numb the lips, tongue and throat, though, and Gardner and Krave bartenders are frank about the taste, too (like “pulling up a plant and licking a root”) and dispense a thorough education to newcomers.

Kratom derives from an evergreen plant that flourishes in the nitrogen-rich soils of Southeast Asia, and while the powder form looks and smells like green tea, it’s cousin to the coffee tree and quite bitter. Luckily for taste-averse patrons, just about any of the drinks can be prepared with milk or laced with a number of sweeteners and spices like ginger, turmeric and maca, a root vegetable associated with clarity of mind, improved energy and balancing hormone levels. Also lining the shelves behind the U-shaped counter: yerba mate teas from Brazil and Uruguay, ceremonial grade cacao, Cuban coffee, a Malaysian coffee with tongkat ali root and ginseng, and concentrated flavored and raw cannabidiol or “CBD,” a non-psychoactive cannabis compound.

Gardner says that coffees from Asia tend to contain less caffeine than varieties from Africa and the Americas, and that she’s noticed the tongkat coffee is a favorite among cops on the night shift because they say it helps channel focus without inciting jitters.

Krave’s clientele represents an interesting cross-section of the community; on any given afternoon, you’ll find graduate students collaborating on a project, old and new friends socializing, business partners meeting in the lounge section and a firefighter studying for the EMT exam.

“There should be a place where you can be yourself and not worry about anything else,” Gardner says. “The people you’ll meet in here, you probably wouldn’t meet otherwise.”

You might meet them under the hanging string lights in the alleyway patio or the lounge area where natural light peters in. No breaking news will flash on television screens, just rainbows of fish among corals to the soundscape of spa soundtracks and lounge EDM. Low, blueish lighting isn’t for everyone but if we’re talking décor, crashing ocean waves are certainly more soothing than talking heads and instant replays.

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(photo by Lauren Barber)

Some call Gardner a lobbyist, but she considers herself an educator, particularly when she finds herself in front of state legislators.

“I’m here to give you the science because the science is on our side,” she says. “We have 11 Ivy League scientists that wrote Congress two summers ago asking the DEA not to ban kratom because it’s helpful and safe.”

Save the teas, coffees and spices, some products on the Krave menu exist in legal gray areas, and Gardner walks a thin line when it comes to suggesting any benefits of what her bars offer. Anecdotal stories are stacking up by the day, though.

Learn more at kravekava.com and visit at 202 Exchange Place (GSO).

“I’ve seen people blossom because they’ve been unable to work because their pain and the medication makes them groggy or they can’t focus,” Gardner says. “They’re functional again, they’re able to go back to work, their relationships are better.”

Over the years, she’s seen family members and friends grow concerned when their loved ones pick up abusable substances, so she tries to clarify the biochemistry: kratom isn’t a “replacement” drug for powerful synthetic opiates, but it does sit on opiate receptors so that recovering addicts don’t crave.

“It’s so mild, but so powerful,” she says. “You have to listen to your body when you experience plants and be in touch with yourself.”

Gardner attends advocacy conferences, stays up to date on the latest academic research and prioritizes responsible, sustainable sourcing. Clinical results are rolling in, but people in these communities have been self-managing withdrawal symptoms and chronic pain for years.

Esther Blessing, a psychiatrist and researcher at New York University, recently told NPR that despite mounting evidence that suggests CBD could effectively treat inflammation, anxiety, addiction and other disorders, clinical trials beyond animal research and short-term human-centered studies are necessary. Gardner points to research from Christopher McCurdy, an internationally recognized expert on kratom and current professor at the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy, who has studied the naturally-occurring narcotic for more than a decade. His primary interest is kratom as a solution to opioid withdrawal syndrome, given that making withdrawal more endurable makes cessation more likely. 

“When I’m in a kava bar, I see hope,” Gardner says. “When I’m here and I see people who are not drinking or doing drugs and being productive, I see hope.”

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Find Krave Kava Bar at 202 Exchange Place (GSO).

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