Kavasutra Kava Bar, a nationwide establishment with multiple locations in South Florida, recently took to Instagram to blast people who follow COVID-19 restrictions and teachers who have opted out of in-person learning because of the pandemic.
In a March 9 post, Kavasutra wrote: "Any and all grade school teachers who, by choice, opted not to return to in-person teaching are hereby banned from any and all Kavasutra Kava Bar locations. Furthermore, masks may not be worn in Arizona or Florida locations. New York and Colorado are a bunch of pussy leftists so they can cover their mouths with a dirty cloth."
In a followup post responding to negative comments on the original invective trifecta, the bar doubled down on its opposition to masks and teachers, and threw in a transphobic dog-whistle for good measure.
"Masks are for leftist losers, teachers unions are trash, women are born with ovaries, and we are doing slams at midnight tonight," the second post read. ("Slams" are essentially the kava version of liquor shots.)
The latest firestorm has thrown into tumult a niche drink industry that's supposed to center on community.
Kavasutra is one of the nation's best-known bars specializing in kava, a South Pacific drink that's sometimes used as an alternative to alcohol because of its calming effect.
As a whole, the kava industry prides itself on communal drinking and being inclusive of people from all walks of life. But Kavasutra has long been criticized for its "edgelord" marketing tactics and inflammatory actions on and off the internet.
In 2018, the bar placed signs in front of Saltwater Brewery in Delray Beach that said, "Kava is proof that God hates beer," prompting frustration from the local beer community. That same year, the company came under fire for Instagram posts from a supposedly "rogue" employee who wrote transphobic hashtags on a post promoting ladies night, including "#notdudeswithtits" and "#ovariesmakeawoman."
Over the past year, Kavasutra has published numerous posts espousing right-wing political beliefs and downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic, including one post that used the hashtag "#covidhoax" and others showing support for Donald Trump. The company's page also includes two videos of Kavasutra vice president Michael Klein speaking at a press conference alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, supporting full business reopenings during the pandemic.
Recently, Kavasutra's Instagram page advertised a "cholo"-themed costume party at its Jupiter location, as part of "Cultural Appropriation Friday." (Cholo is a stereotypical term that refers to men who identify with Mexican-American gang culture.)
A current South Florida employee of Kavasutra, who asked that their name not be published out of fear of retaliation, tells New Times the posts don't reflect the views of employees.
"It's very divided now. We have a lot of regular customers disappointed in the company, and a lot of employees feel like this has compromised the trust we have with regular customers," the employee says.
Management for Kavasutra could not be reached for comment via email or direct message on Instagram this week. New Times reached out to several Kavasutra Kava Bar locations seeking comment from the owners, but employees who answered the phone at the North Palm Beach, Lake Worth, and Jupiter bars said they did not see any of the managers on a daily basis.
One employee who spoke to New Times said workers are told not to talk to media.
"We were told if the news calls, just say we don't know anything," the employee said.
Kavasutra is owned by Palm Beach business owner Dylan Harrison, who reportedly ran the company Instagram page at the time of the transphobic posts in 2018. Harrison was arrested in 2012 on a felony charge of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. for selling synthetic marijuana through another company he owns, Mr. Nice Guy Inc. He was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison.
Per the Florida Division of Corporations, Kavasutra is currently led by Michael Klein and Ronald VanTassell, a childhood friend of Harrison's, according to the Palm Beach Post. But an employee says Harrison is still in charge of the business and the Instagram page. Harrison's LinkedIn account lists him as the "Grand Pubah" at Kavasutra Inc.
New Times was unable to find a working phone number for Harrison.
Because the company is one of the largest kava chains in the nation and the industry is still somewhat nascent, other South Florida kava chains worry that Kavasutra's reputation reflects poorly on them, too.
"Whenever they say something, people think it represents all kava bars," says David Branda, co-owner of Island Vibes Kava bar, which has a location in West Palm Beach. "I own three kava bars and we have a really good community from every walk of life and every belief system. Kavasutra does not speak for any of our community."
Branda says his business has been adversely affected by the high-profile antics of Kavasutra because of how large it looms in the kava community. He says that when he's attempted to open new locations and applied for a lease, building owners have searched "kava" and found news stories about Kavasutra.
"I've been turned down because they looked up a kava bar online and they think it's negative because of Kavasutra and don't want any part of it," Branda says.
While some kava bar owners have wanted to speak up about Kavasutra, some have felt afraid to do so, fearing retaliation.
Branda's co-owner, Anton Smith, says Kavasutra has at times bullied its competitors and interfered with their businesses. When Island Vibes first opened its location, Smith and Banda found that Kavasutra had purchased the company's domain name. Users who type in "islandvibeskavabar.com" on a search bar will be redirected to Kavasutra's main page.
"That's an example of the bullying they've been doing," Smith says.
Chloe Hill, a co-owner of Pause 131 Kava Bar in Delray Beach and Deerfield Beach, says those stories have led other businesses to take note.
"People are that intimidated by them. I've wanted to speak out so many times," she says.
Hill tells New Times the comments from Kavasutra are not representative of the broader kava community.
"A lot of other kava bars foster an inclusive and positive environment, and it's disappointing when they're the biggest chain of kava bars because then people think they're what it's like and lump us all together," she says.
Furthermore, Hill adds, the posts don't properly reflect the spirit of kava, historically a ceremonial drink meant to bring people together.
"Kava has been used for thousands of years for various purposes. It's ceremonial, religious, and medicinal," Hill explains. "The whole point of this is that no matter who you are or where you're from, your orientation or beliefs, as long as you're respectful, you will get respect and be welcomed with open arms."
While Kavasutra's recent posts regarding masks have garnered support from a handful of customers, many others have taken to Facebook and Instagram to lambast the company for its comments.
One competing kava bar, Shells Kava Bar in Lauderhill, published a post on Instagram that poked fun at Kavasutra's message.
"We're not going to make decisions on who to allow as a customer based on your personal life choices. If you are wanting a friendlier more accepting atmosphere, and much better kava, come give us a try. Furthermore, you may choose to wear masks or not wear masks. We're cool with whatever makes you comfortable," the post reads.