Neil Cavanagh and his wife, Dalice, said they verbally got a green light last year from Washoe County to open a kava tea bar. Then they spent more than $65,000 on the business—only to find out Washoe County Health District officials would not allow them to sell their product after all.
With their life savings on the line, the couple struggled to find a way to keep the Reno Roots Kava Bar at 935 N. Virginia St. open, and get the kava tea flowing. Serving only herbal and boba teas was a recipe for failure, they said, and the business had been losing about $700 to $1,000 a day since opening March 14.
Although the legal dietary supplement is sold as a beverage in kava bars across the nation, including in Las Vegas, rules governing the legal—but as yet unregulated—supplement are set by individual counties. Clark County allows kava to be sold as a prepared tea, but Washoe health officials decided it can only be sold as a supplement in powdered form. The Cavanaghs, faced with the demise of their business, kept trying to get health officials to change their minds.
“There are hundreds of kava bars across the country, but as far as I can determine, Washoe County is the only health department saying, ‘No, you can’t sell it as tea,’” Neil Cavanagh said. “It was frustrating.”
After repeated rejections from the health district, the couple recently met with health officials and Reno Councilman Devon Reese, who sits on the Washoe County District Board of Health. The Cavanaghs decided to sell kava—often called “nature’s Xanax”—in a way that’s not exactly in the Pacific islands tradition, but satisfies the health district’s concerns: Rather than sell ready-made kava tea, made by seeping water through a layer of root fragments or root powder and mesh filters, the bar supplies patrons with a coconut shell of water and a double portion of kava extract. The customers pour the supplement into the cup themselves.
“I found a guy in Florida who makes a very good supplement,” Neil Cavanagh said. “It’s more expensive; a product that had cost me pennies to make now costs about $2 to make. But (patrons) will not be able to tell the difference between it and the traditional method, and it still has all the benefits of kava tea.”
Kava comes from a shrub called Piper methysticum, which is native to Micronesia and Polynesia. Its root has long been used in religious rituals in the South Pacific. Kava, which is said to reduce stress and anxiety, has also become popular in the U.S., where hundreds of bars serve it as tea to patrons older than 18.
Discovering kava in Florida
Born and raised in Reno, Neil and Dalice Cavanagh were in a dark place in 2010. “We were alcoholics,” Neil said. “It was getting in the way of our marriage.”
That year, the Cavanaghs moved to Florida to start a booze-free life. There, they met new friends, including one who owned a deli next door to a kava bar. “It was a full bar,” Neil said. “All those people sitting there were doing the same thing you do at a (regular) bar: talk about sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, religion, politics—everything you’re not supposed to.”
There were no raised voices or fights. “Nobody’s throwing their words,” said Dalice. “People were having intelligent conversations.”
Kava, Neil said, has an earthy taste and contains compounds called “kavalactones” that have been shown to interact with receptors in the brain, helping to calm the mind and promote relaxation. The beverage is relaxing, but not intoxicating, users attest. “It’s a body mellow,” Neil said. “Like a massage from the inside out.”
Studies have shown that kava can have a positive effect on people who suffer from anxiety without the negative side effects associated with some prescription medications. Recent research indicates it may also be a natural sleep aid, an anti-inflammatory and a muscle-relaxer. Its popularity in the U.S. is increasing, according to industry reports, with Hawaii, California and Florida leading the list of states with the most kava bars.
Seeing the demand for the drink, the Cavanaghs initially planned to open a kava bar in Florida. But their focus shifted to Reno in 2022, when Neil visited his hometown for his friend’s 50th birthday. He started checking out spaces for a kava bar and found a spot across the street from the University of Nevada, Reno. He searched Nevada laws.
“It’s very hard to find where it says, ‘Yes, you can,’ or, ‘No, you can’t,’” said Cavanagh. “It’s legal in all 50 states. That’s all that pops up.”
He applied for a Reno business license in November and spoke to an employee at the Washoe County Health District on Dec. 15, who called him about an initial heath inspection. There was no mention of a ban on selling kava tea, he said.
A week later, another district employee called to tell Cavanagh he wasn’t allowed to sell the beverage. He was shocked.
“There are no ordinances, there are no laws, that say I can’t do this,” he said. He’s right, but because kava is both legal and unregulated federally, it’s up to counties to set the rules.
In January, Cavanagh was asked to come into the health district offices to discuss his business plans. But the six officials who met with the couple “didn’t want to talk about plans. They wanted to talk about kava,” Neil said. The officials told the couple that under the health division’s interpretation of U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, they could not sell the tea. The FDA “considers kava to be a supplement that is limited to personal use.” Kava is not listed as “generally recognized as safe,” according to federal regulations, and “cannot be used in foods or beverages as an ingredient.”
Cavanaugh said the officials were unaware of the kava bar in Las Vegas, 9th Island Kava Lounge, and couldn’t explain why a now-closed kava bar, Sol Kava, was allowed to open in Reno in 2017.
Amber English, an environmental health specialist supervisor at Washoe County Health District, told the RN&R that Sol Kava may have opened before the supplement was on the health division’s radar or before the FDA’s “recognized as safe” list of supplements was updated.
English, who said she has never tried kava tea, doesn’t dispute its alleged benefits. She knows other jurisdictions allow it, but said it is her job to make sure the public is safe. Some reports link heavy kava use to hepatotoxicity (liver damage), and it remains banned in the United Kingdom. But in 2007, the World Health Organization’s assessment of kava concluded that incidences of liver damage are rare and often found in people who already have compromised livers.
Neil Cavanagh is relieved that he can finally sell his main product. Since March, he said, UNR students who are fans of boba tea helped keep the shop alive, but most are now gone for the summer. “Kava is a destination product,” said Cavanagh. “People drive from all over to have it. And with the kids not here, we need that other clientele.”
Still, the Cavanaghs remain determined to be able to sell kava in the traditional way. “We will follow through with the appeals process, and we’ve reached out to the state and are working with Councilman Reese, and we are going to try to get help from legislators,” Neil said.
“We’ll serve it (as a supplement) until we win this fight. This is my passion. I’m trying to open a sober bar. … Kava is a holistic alternative to alcohol. We are bringing a positive thing to the community.”