James Sahni, owner of Kavakaze, standing with long time friend and employee Greg Kriman.
Photo courtesy Greg Kriman
Kavakaze is an eclectic tea-bar specializing in kava and kratom, two alcohol alternatives that have been enjoyed for over 3,000 years, to promote relaxation and socialization.
Kava is a plant of the pepper family native to the Pacific Islands that is typically consumed before religious ceremonies and consumed socially to unwind, while Kratom is a tropical evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia where it is traditionally chewed in raw-leaf form by workers to endure exhaustion, relieve pain, and as a mood enhancer.
“I never really cared for drinking that much. And I knew coming to Tallahassee, a big part of the culture is alcohol and drinking and it was never something that interested me,” said James Sahni, 22-year-old owner of Kavakaze. “Knowing that there was no kava bar up here — that there was no real alternative — I took it as a huge honor to be able to lead the charge.”
Sahni, a New York native, came to Tallahassee to study at Florida State University and opened Kavakaze on Sept. 15, 2015. His journey with kava began when he was 15, while getting his haircut.
“I was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I was getting my haircut by the same person I always do and I explained to him that my friends were getting into booze and I didn’t care for alcohol that much. She said one of her friends used to be an alcoholic but he doesn’t drink anymore, he just does kava,
“She told me about a new place that opened a couple doors down. When I was done with my haircut, I walked in, they gave me a free shell, I had no idea what it was or who the guy behind the bar was, but it turns out he was the owner of the largest kava-bar chain in the world,” said Sahni.
After landing a job as a promoter at the establishment, he eventually worked his way up to a salaried position and saved his money to open what would become Kavakaze on West Call Street. He now has plans to move back to South Florida to continue his work in real estate, and will be passing down the kava-torch to employee Greg Kriman, 20, who will serve as operational manager.
“Kavakaze is really a place like no other. In the morning and early afternoon, it resembles a coffee shop. You’ll find a lot of students coming in to study or just hang out and kill some time in between classes,” said Kriman. “You’ll see a lot of young professionals grabbing a drink to make the work day a little more bearable. We have a very tight-knit group of regulars that’s growing each day. Everyone here is passionate about the product, but even more passionate about the strong community that we’ve built.”
Kriman and Sahni have been friends since high school and both consider the kava bar to be a special place. Kriman shared an anecdote about getting a flat tire, walking into Kavakaze to ask for assistance and within five minutes, dozens of people were surrounding his car looking to help.
Usually taken together to form a sense of community, the drinks are traditionally chugged like a shot, also called shells, and it is not uncommon for everyone around the bar to take one together and shout “Bula!” a Fijian saying for happiness and long life.
Kavakaze was packed with both new customers and regulars, celebrating four years of business.
Photo courtesy Greg Kriman
Kriman and other employees describe that taste as “what the inside of a Home Depot smells like,” but customers typically come to enjoy the atmosphere and relaxing effects of the tea, anyway.
Kavakaze also offers CBD carbonated drinks and a variety of teas without the kava or kratom buzz. There are plans to open up a second Tallahassee location and a third location in Gainesville, shortly after.
“I’m a little bit of a patriotic guy, the American dream means something to me. The fact that I got to come here, and I didn’t take out any loans or borrow any money from anybody, and in four years I got to watch this place turn into the success that it is,” said Sahni. “After building this I get to go follow my next dream and watch my little brother step into my shoes. It’s definitely one of the most inspirational things, and brings me close to tears.”
Kava has a signature reverse tolerance, meaning the more you drink kava the less you need to feel the effects. It is completely natural and used to help treat a variety of mental health related symptoms and menopausal symptoms.
According to Mental Health America, kava has been shown to be a good treatment for anxiety with some evidence for stress, depression and insomnia. It is generally safe for short-term use but is considered controversial because of the rare case that it causes liver damage.