By Sara Raja
It was Elizabeth Gardner’s birthday, but she didn’t feel like celebrating. She was an attorney and had court in the morning. Her friend, however, was insisting they go out.
“I’ll take you anywhere,” her friend said. “Tell me where you wanna go, and we’ll go.”
Gardner was starting to give in, but she didn’t want to go to a traditional bar.
“I really can’t stomach looking at any more broken lives [having] a celebration moment,” she said.
She typed “bar alternatives” into Google and Purple Lotus Kava Bar popped up. So, they went.
The bartender explained to them how tea made from the root of the kava plant could have relaxing and euphoric effects.
Even more than the tea, Gardner was impressed by the sense of community in the bar.
“All the people knew each other by their first name,” she said. “And they were all talking to me, welcoming me, explaining what it’s about to me.”
Eleven years later, Gardner owns Krave, a Kava Bar and Tea Lounge, with three locations in North Carolina.
Her life’s goal has always been to combat drug addiction.
She used to do it as an attorney in Florida, but now she does it by providing a drug-free space where people can find community.
Gardner quickly became a regular at Purple Lotus and eventually became the owner’s lawyer.
When she received her inheritance, she moved back to North Carolina with the goal of opening a kava bar.
Breaking out of her shell
As a child, Gardner said she was shy — a wallflower even.
She’s also a Hillsborough, North Carolina native whose grandparents worked in the textile mills.
She attended UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1980s and was a member of Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority.
Although she was a reserved college student, Gardner was appointed social chair of the sorority.
Suddenly, she was meeting with fraternity brothers and organizing mixers. That time was pivotal in her life.
“It forced me to be me, and I’m so grateful for that experience,” she said. “It’s the discomfort in life that has led to my biggest growth.”
In college, Gardner wasn’t sure what career path she wanted to pursue and she sat down with a friend to pour over the list of majors at UNC-CH.
Together, they envisioned the type of career that would come with each.
She settled on law and enrolled in a prep class.
“I thought ‘If it’s meant to be, it’s going to happen,’” she said. “Gonna throw the spaghetti on the wall, see what sticks.”
Law stuck. She went on to attend law school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, eventually becoming a defense attorney.
Her goal was to combat drug addiction by using the power of the court and improving the rehabilitation process.
For Gardner, addiction hits home
Gardner has an older cousin who still struggles with addiction. He has to rely on his mother, because he isn’t able to be independent.
A lot of other people in her family deal with addiction as well — with many of them becoming addicted after being prescribed opiates by a doctor.
Gardner realized the problem was all around her. Most people were using prescription or illegal drugs, or at least drinking alcohol.
“Everything’s designed around it,” she said. “If you celebrate, you drink. If you are having a bad day, drink. You don’t realize that over time it’s killing your liver.”
She often represented clients struggling with addiction who got in trouble with the law. She hoped to use the court system as a way to help people turn around their lives.
“You can force them to look at another way, and in their sober mind, they might choose to use that to make a better life,” she said.
She remembers spending a Thanksgiving sitting in jail with a woman, who was a prostitute that used drugs.
One person walked in to thank Gardner for sitting with the woman. “To me, [that] was worth all the other hundreds of people that I never saw again,” she said.
She loved being a lawyer, from the thrill of the jury being seated to the trial beginning.
But she didn’t enjoy the administrative work of running her own practice. So, when she received her inheritance, she set her sights on returning to her home state.
By now she had met her husband, Joshua Pardue. They were introduced at a live-action role-playing vampire event.
She spotted him across the room and asked her friends who he was.
Building a community of love
In 2015, they moved to North Carolina together to open the Carrboro location of Krave.
The building is on Main Street. When you walk into the dimly lit front room, you’ll see patrons chatting at the bar while the bartender serves a range of kava and kratom teas.
Pieces of art, many of them created by patrons of the bar, cover the walls.
In the back room, there are comfortable places to sit and calming, somewhat psychedelic images are projected onto one wall.
A mural of a purple lotus on the opposite wall is a nod to the place Gardner first discovered kava.
The bar staff welcomes anyone who walks in, ready to explain the effects of kava tea.
A variety of people can be found at Krave.
Gardner said the bar tends to attract creative types of all ages. Some patrons have struggled with addiction in the past and use kava as an alternative to drugs or alcohol.
Arod Rodriguez is one example. He said kava helped him quit using drugs. Rodriguez met Gardner at Purple Lotus back in Florida.
Now, she is like a sister to him.
Gardner helped him through a breakup and he ended up moving to North Carolina to work in one of her bars.
He described her as the type of person to take the shirt off her back to help keep someone warm.
“There isn’t one wall she can’t climb or can’t encourage you to climb,” he said. “She’ll encourage you to overcome anything.”
Gardner is proud of the communities that form at her bars. Some patrons have been coming for years.
When something happens to a member of the community, such as a drug or alcohol relapse, everyone is deeply affected.
“I’ve seen people get jobs, spouses, roommates,” she said. “It’s a nice network of support.”
Jordan Browning has been a bartender at Krave’s Carrboro location since 2018. He said Gardner makes an effort to cultivate community in the bar.
“I’ve always seen Liz as someone that a lot of folks… have who’s good to talk to,” he said.
Since 2015, Gardner has opened two more Krave locations in Greensboro and Raleigh.
The Raleigh location opened just a few weeks ago with a big celebration featuring DJs and Hawaiian dancers.
Gardner was excited to finally open the new location and pleased with the large turnout at the celebration.
She said she’s an example of why people should never judge others by their circumstances.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘Who would have ever thought you would have been a lawyer?’” Gardner said. “Maybe it’s because I’m from West Hillsborough, or maybe it’s because my family worked in the mills, or maybe it’s because I’m shy.”
“But don’t ever discount the underdog. We have a lot to offer the world,” she said.
Editing by Brianna Atkinson and Brooke Dougherty