When the national chain Kavasutra Kava Bar opened a Denver location at 1232 East Colfax Avenue nearly five years ago, its focus was on providing the Mile High City with kava, a "magical root from the South Pacific," according to its website. Combine a little ground-up dried kava with some water, and the result is a "relaxing and euphoric drink that elevates the senses" and purportedly helps with everything from anxiety relief to muscle recovery.
But that focus shifted sharply this week, when some of the company's Instagram posts went viral — and not in a good way. A promotion meant to make a local splash has become something of a deluge...and anything but relaxing.
It began with a promotional post from what's now being called a "rogue employee" based in Florida who had sole charge of the company's Instagram account. The message promised "free slams" (the kava equivalent of shots) for "chicks only," and employed tags like “#nodudeswithtits” and “#ovariesmakeawoman.” When that trans-phobic attack was met with a little pushback, the now-fired but still-unnamed Kavasutra employee decided that offending the LGBTQ+ community wasn’t enough and went after all women.
“The point of ladies night is to get ladies in the door so the men can bang them,” the unnamed employee said in a reply to a patron complaining about the language being used. “If there’s no vagina then they don’t qualify because they don’t fit the business and the plan.”
And then there’s a video of someone at a Florida Kavasutra telling the women at the bar that, “I need proof that you ladies are ladies” to a lot of shirt-lifting whooping. (Because of course there’s video: This is 2018.) This recording was taken during a “slam,” much like the one being talked about in the tweets. The corporate edict was to make the promotion a “ladies night” thing. According to an employee at the Denver Kavasutra Kava Bar, the local outlet ignored that and just made the offer good for anyone who was present for the promotion.
And that’s important to remember: The folks who work at Denver's Kavasutra were not responsible for the offensive messages. But already the conflict has moved out of the digital realm and into the physical; the police had to be called to the Lake Worth, Florida, Kavasutra after an altercation broke out between a patron and an employee.
“I think the person that said all that online is no longer with the company,” says one of the Denver bartenders, who identifies himself as Mason. “And Denver is its own entity, distinct from the other stores.” Mason concludes by saying that he and his fellow Kavasutra employees want to “separate ourselves from the whole dilemma but, you know, stand by our company at the same time.”
Kavasutra Denver is known as a pretty LGBTQ+ friendly place — it even participated in the local Pride parade a few weeks ago — so this uproar has been confusing for many local patrons. With good reason: Our sibling, Miami New Times, lists a disturbing number of posts from Kavasutra's corporate Instagram account that “make a frat house seem like a nunnery.” Just a fucked-up few:
- In June, Kavasutra posted a cartoon depicting Bill Cosby hovering over a sleeping Snow White — an unveiled joke about the actor's history of drugging his victims.
- In April, a post stated, "In many kava bars in Vanuatu, woman (sic) are not permitted to enter the bar. Let's celebrate other cultures with female bans and childhood arranged marriages."
- This past June, a post stated, "How can male circumcision be so great and female circumcision so bad?" — a clear reference to female genital mutilation.
- Around the time Kim Kardashian met with President Trump, the bar posted, "Kim K Definitely swallowed Presidential load like Monica."
These things sit in contradiction to the statement that corporate Kavasutra put out on Instagram:
Kavasutra Kava Bar is virulently and adamantly opposed to discrimination in all forms. Any such inequity or prejudice will be met with swift physical removal from in or around our establishment. Our friends and patrons understand this policy and our convictions. We have compiled a collection of pictures and videos from the past few years, and we hope this clears any confusion presented from recent social media posts.
Kavasutra Chief Operating Officer Michael Klein says that it all goes back to that “one rogue employee” who he says has been fired.
“This person was in charge of the company’s social-media accounts," Klein explains. "There’s one Instagram account for the entire company, and this person based in Florida was in control of it and wanted to be edgy.”
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Klein admits that this person had been posting on social media without much oversight for months by the time the exchange occurred.
Klein says that the original post was really about “straight men in dresses trying to get a discount,” and not any perceived attack on the trans community. But he concedes that things spun out in a bad direction from there. He says that there will be future actions taken by Kavasutra in response to this situation, including both employee trainings and community outreach. These are in the planning stages, he says, and no details are yet available — but it's notable that as of this writing, Kavasutra's Instagram account still leads with the statement "If you're easily offended, we're not for you."
But local employees insist the culture is different here. “We’re very welcoming," says another bartender, who wishes to remain anonymous. "It’s like a family. I don’t think one person’s mistakes on social media should define who people are here in Denver.”
Update, July 13: Since publishing this piece, Kavasutra Kava Bar owner Dylan Harrison has admitted to Florida police to being the author of the Instagram posts in question. There was no "rogue employee" as claimed by COO Michael Klein, and as Harrison is the owner of Kavasutra, he has not been fired. Harrison served a year in prison in 2013 after taking a plea deal with federal authorities for conspiring to break federal laws, distributing an illegal substance, and selling a incorrectly branded drug as part of a synthetic-marijuana racket ironically dubbed "Mr. Nice Guy." Local Kavasutra Kava Bar manager Brian Kobylinksi tenured his resignation Tuesday morning, immediately after the offensive posts going viral.