The Four Shells Kava Lounge opened eight months before covid-19 swept across the country, forcing people to stay at home and fret over an unknown outbreak.
That would put a strain on any business, but Auckland’s first kava bar, which had only been open for six months, was already at rock bottom in January 2020.
It was two months before New Zealand succumbed to the virus and a split developed between the founders, leaving ’Anau Mesui Henry and her husband Todd Henry holding the kava cup when things went crazy.
“When the pandemic hit, we were already at rock bottom,” Todd Henry says. “There was literally nowhere to go but up.”
For the uninitiated, kava is a bitter drink popular in the South Pacific, made from the root extract of the kava plant.
It doesn’t contain alcohol, and people drink it for a raft of reasons, ranging from cultural ceremonies, to stress relief or help with sleeping, or purely for recreation.
Things turned around for Four Shells after they made the decision to go all-in on the business, and Henry says the establishment of a kava lounge in Auckland’s Victoria Park Market has become a venue for people to deal with the stress and uncertainty of living under covid through coming together over kava.
Henry says some of the highs over the past couple of years have been introducing kava to newcomers who now come to drink and socialise alongside those who have grown up with kava as a cultural practice.
“When you drink kava, you're not getting high or trying to escape reality. It actually just helps you slow down a little bit and connect with people in a meaningful way,” he says.
“And I think a lot of people have found that beneficial during all the chaos of the past two years.”
For the Henrys, that’s also given them new optimism about Four Shells’ future, with tentative plans for another lounge in South Auckland as well as the development of a new product.
“We are working on a bottled kava product that would help offer an alternative to people who want to socialise without alcohol, while at the same time educating the public on what kava is and what it is not,” he says.
“We're in the final stages of product development, which is really exciting and we’re hoping we can get other small businesses to start stocking our kava.”
Henry says he’s “incredibly grateful” for the growth that Four Shells has seen since the early days of the pandemic.
“We’ve grown so much since 2020 and have a solid group of regulars that come every week – we’re really helping build community through kava,” he says.
Henry first discovered kava when he met his Tongan-born wife ‘Anau back in 2008. Her family has a long history of being in the kava business.
“When I first came into the family, I didn't know a word of Tongan or anything about the culture,” he says.
“I asked my wife what the best way would be to learn Tongan and she said I should start drinking kava with the cousins and uncles – so I started doing that.”
Two years later, they started discussing the idea of creating a kava business but didn’t know where to start. It took several years to work out how it would look and it was nine before Four Shells opened, only to go through a radical change in those early covid months.
Once they made that decision to give their dream another go, it’s all been positive and they're bringing an authentic Pacific taste and mindset to downtown Auckland.
“Kava is very important to Pacific Islanders – it's not just a drink, it defines their cultures in many ways, and it’s the defining element of some of their functions and protocol,” Henry says.
“Through my wife's cultural background and my experience in that culture, we've brought that consideration to the ways that we present kava and share with people.”