With The Kava Konnection, Gabriel Coggins has created a hub for community and socialization

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Gabriel Coggins, co-owner of The Kava Connection, recently won the 2018 Young Entrepreneur of the Year award presented by CommunityWorks and the Greenville Chamber of Commerce. Will Crooks/Greenville Journal

About 20 minutes before The Kava Konnection co-owner Gabriel Coggins sat down to talk about winning the 2018 Young Entrepreneur of the Year award presented by CommunityWorks and the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, he took a shot to help with a little bit of anxiety he was feeling.

But it wasn’t the typical liquor variety. Rather, he downed 4 oz. of kava, an earthy beverage made from the ground root of the Piper methysticum plant native to the South Pacific known to have a calming, anti-anxiety effect without the sensory-numbing of alcohol.

Coggins, 26, holds the distinction of opening the first and only, for now, kava bar in South Carolina. He says within the first year he was in the black, and over the last three years, he has continued to see sales grow, requiring him to hire four more employees in addition to his mother, Debbie Coggins, who is also his business partner.

Coggins says he is incredibly grateful for receiving the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, which was presented on May 1, after being the 2017 runner-up.

“It helps kinda further solidify the legitimacy of what we’re doing,” Coggins says.

And he wonders how long the tiki-decorated The Kava Konnection, which he opened at 1540 Wade Hampton Blvd. in September 2015, will be the only kava bar in the state.

“Literally the only kava bar in South Carolina still, which is mind-boggling to me, because left and right I’m hearing about it in state after state, every other state. I mean, North Carolina is pushing like 10 now,” he says.

The Kava Konnection, located at 1540 Wade Hampton Blvd., is the only kava bar in South Carolina. Will Crooks/Upstate Business Journal

But he hopes maybe the second location will also be his.

“We are the only ones here for now. As we continue to get this baby more and more self-sufficient, which is an ever-growing process, then that’s our plan to shift gears to somewhere else,” Coggins says.

A series of difficult life events led the skateboarding and guitar-playing entrepreneur to this business venture in a way he describes as the biggest, serendipitous blessing.

When Coggins was 15, his father died. The black acoustic guitar Coggins keeps at the bar for impromptu jam sessions was a gift from his father, which is why, even though it’s not a great instrument, he’s held on to it.

Eventually, Coggins began working in a local pizza shop, and the well-publicized demons of the restaurant industry found him.

“I was definitely in an abusive, suppressive mindset of suppressing emotions instead of dealing with them,” he says.

Already dabbling in alcohol use and suffering from sports-related injuries and back pain, Coggins began using drugs to offset the pain and numb his emotions and anxiety.

It worked for a while — from 2009-2011 — until he began experiencing intense digestive issues. When he told his mother, she took him to the hospital, where a urinalysis revealed the substance abuse. He’s maintained his sobriety since that day.

Coggins sought out treatment for his resulting physical ailments at Garner’s Natural Life store, and finding he enjoyed the environment, he eventually became an employee and a manager. There, he also discovered the benefits of kava supplements for his anxiety, and it had such an overwhelmingly positive effect on his life that he began brainstorming with his mother about the potential of starting a business.

Coggins had previously attended Greenville Technical College for one year with the intent of transferring to the University of South Carolina and majoring in international business with a minor in Arabic. Already fluent in Spanish from his Colombian background, picking up Arabic after two semesters at Tech came easily.

But then his personal and health crisis caused him to change course. Business, however, was something he still wanted to pursue, and after discovering the health benefits of kava, and then experiencing the community of drinking kava at an Asheville, N.C., kava bar, he knew he’d found his next venture.

“We saw that there was a social aspect,” he says. “To not feel terrible, not feel impaired. We felt that that idea was a necessity across the board.”

After it became clear he would not be returning to college, Coggins approached his grandmother about using the remainder of his college fund she had set aside to launch his business. She agreed, with one stipulation — that Debbie Coggins be his business partner.

Once that agreement was finalized, the two began selling drinkable kava at farmers markets, outdoor concerts, and other such festivals to introduce the foreign drink to Greenville and to gain a following. They did that for a year and a half before opening the brick-and-mortar location.

“At that point in time, we were so apprehensive,” Coggins says. “We were even dabbling with the idea of maybe doing a primarily mobile business. We really saw, the more research we looked into, we saw that the kava bar environment and even the consumption of kava is conducive to the socialization, and this style of seating where it’s very communal, where we finally kicked the nerves and just made the leap.”

From 2015 to 2017, Coggins says their sales doubled, requiring him to hire four employees to keep up with the demand. That has affected net earnings, but sales are still increasing, with this past March being the most profitable month so far. To accommodate the growing business, the hours of operation will soon be increasing to Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m.-2 a.m., as more customers are looking for a midday shot of kava.

Coggins attributes the growth to a few factors. First, he has very little food waste, keeping his costs low. While the ground kava root sourced from the South Pacific isn’t cheap, it can remain in dry storage indefinitely. Once it’s processed with water into the liquid form, it has about a five-day shelf life, but the staff processes only what they know they’ll use for the next couple days. The fruit used in the blended beverages is frozen, eliminating the potential for fresh produce spoilage.

Secondly, he’s honed in on the customer demographic. Whereas Coggins previously thought his target consumers would be the yogis and CrossFitters, it turns out 20-somethings, many of whom are in the service industry, are looking for the socialization of a bar without the alcohol.

And thirdly, working on publicizing their weekly events has been worth the effort of maintaining the large chalkboard event calendar just inside the entrance and training customers to notice it. Biweekly coloring nights that alternate with open-mic poetry night are both a big hit. Poetry night regularly draws 50-plus customers.

Coggins makes his case for those new to kava to give it a shot: “If you’re coming here and you’ve worked a long shift at whatever your job is, whether it’s restaurant or professional or anything in between, and you’re stressed and you would normally go home and have a whiskey or go to a bar and have a whiskey, or have a glass of wine or a couple beers, come here and have a couple kavas, socialize for a couple hours, and keep working if you have to, but then not be inebriated,” he says. “Go home and have an awesome night’s sleep and wake up and feel relaxed and ready to go the next day — no hangover. A lot of it, though, is breaking through that initial barrier.”

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