“Some people come in and work while drinking it all day,” said Bula Kava server Victoria Myers. “They want an alternative to alcohol.”
Marco McLean, 60, a regular to the Division Street location who visits about five times a week, said that the kava gives him a chill feeling. He thinks it will be popular in downtown Vancouver.
“With some people, physiologically, kava clicks with them,” he said.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, kava has been studied for its effect on anxiety, but there’s major a lack of research on the drink. Like alcohol, overconsumption of kava may be linked to liver damage, although most research suggests it’s healthier than alcohol.
Unlike alcoholic beverages, kava is unregulated. Rench travels the Pacific and buys the roots directly from farmers when he can. At Bula Kava, he tests all the batches for safety and purity, he said.
Rench was born and raised in Southeast Portland. After dropping out of high school, he moved to Thailand and then to the Turks and Caicos islands as a scuba diver and instructor.
“I was just kind of traveling around, doing the young Judd things,” he said.
He and his then-partner moved back to the Pacific Northwest, and then to Hawaii so Rench could work at a dive shop in Kona. His co-workers invited him to an outdoor kava bar in a small shopping mall that they frequented, and he became a regular.
“It tasted like dirt at first, but made me feel really good,” he said. “I felt like people in Portland would like this. Then, we were always talking about how good a kava bar would do in Portland. It was a fun, random talk and we didn’t think anything would come out of it.”
He moved back to Portland around the end of 2009, and earned a business management degree from George Fox University — without ever having earned his high school degree or equivalency diploma. He launched his kava business.
The Division Street location’s grand opening was March 22, 2011. Rench hopes the Vancouver location’s grand opening will coincide with that date in 2022, but in any event he plans to open no later than early April.
He signed a lease in late November and is awaiting building renovations before he can transform the space into something similar to his first spot: slightly Bohemian and modern, but paying respect to the Pacific islands origin of kava.
Rench chose Vancouver because his partner works here. Rench sees downtown’s appeal rising as more restaurants, bars and coffee shops have opened and more people spend time in the city center.
“Vancouver is a cool place,” he said. “I like the vibe.”