Before customers at Kava Kafé drink the business’ trademark product, they lift their shells in the air and repeat the word “bula,” a term that means “to health and happiness.”
Brett Hahlen, the owner of Kava Kafé, emphasized that “bula” is more than just a word. Rather, it is a philosophy that permeates every aspect of his new business.
Kava Kafé opened in July at 3457 Jackson St. Hahlen bills the operation as “the first sober bar in Dubuque,” emphasizing that its health-focused products and alcohol-free environment provide a different kind of atmosphere to local residents.
“We are building a community around this, a sober community that provides a safe social environment,” he said. “It’s something different in Dubuque, where bars are everywhere.”
Kava Kafe’s commitment to providing this alternative is reflected in its lengthy hours: The business remains open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days per week, purposefully providing a different kind of social atmosphere during the late-night hours where the bulk of other social activity is taking place at bars.
A lounge within the café includes a guitar and a wide variety of board games, providing a multitude of ways for customers to gather and pass the time.
The products served at Kava Kafé also speak to the broader mission.
Hahlen explained that kava is a root in the pepper family that is widely known to calm the body and the mind.
“Kava is a booming business in other parts of the country,” Hahlen said. “We think it is something that will take off here.”
The café also serves cacao, which comes from the seed of an evergreen tree found in South America. The menu also features hot and iced coffees and a wide selection of teas.
The location at 3457 Jackson Street previously housed Tott’s Tap, a bar that was long popular among production workers at Flexsteel. Hahlen explained that business there dried up when Flexsteel moved its manufacturing operations out of Dubuque, opening an opportunity for a new business to take over the property.
Hahlen said Kava Kafé has occupied the building since spring of 2020, and spent more than a year transforming the facility into what it is today.
While the bar itself remains intact, new décor was installed throughout, including bamboo trim along the walls. A workbench, made of reclaimed wood from Flexsteel, was constructed to give customers a place to stand with their laptops and work.
Artificial, green foliage was erected in various parts of the facility, lending an outdoorsy feel to the building’s interior.
“I wanted to bring nature inside to give it a calming atmosphere,” said Hahlen.
Just weeks after opening, Kava Kafé already has earned some loyal customers.
Evan Johnson, of Dubuque, said he immediately realized the business brought something new to the area.
“When you walk in the front door, your first impression is ‘Where am I at’?” Johnson said. “It feels like you’re on an island in Fiji.”
For Johnson, the new business has provided an outlet he had previously been lacking. He explained that he sustained major injuries in an accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down.
He’s found that kava serves as a natural remedy that helps alleviate his pain and minimize his anxiety.
Moreover, the atmosphere at the establishment has given him a new sense of community.
“I don’t have to worry about anyone yelling, or fighting, or falling into my wheelchair,” he said. “It’s more of an intellectual environment that is also very fun and lively.”