Walking back to work, I think I’m high on something other than life.
But it’s not alcohol or drugs. I’ve just visited Roxa, Santa Cruz’s first alchemy hammock cafe, where I tried kola nut powder dissolved in water and powered pine pollen—both naturally derived substances aimed at enhancing the quality of life and wellness.
Both ingredients are simple enough. The kola nut is used to flavor sodas like Coca-Cola, or as a supplement. Pine pollen is the same pollen that’s in the air. But the combined effect was that of an intense caffeine high coupled with a sense of relaxation and euphoria. (I don’t drink coffee particularly often, so it wasn’t surprising that I was a bit more “altered” than the average person.)
“When you drink some of these herbal teas and elixirs, you feel like complete strangers are family. In small doses, they are beneficial,” Roxa owner Michael Trainer says. “They can become a problem. It’s not something you’d want to do all the time, but they are much better for you than alcohol.”
Trainer and his partner, Jazmin Grant, are sober—they don’t drink or take drugs. Instead, they look to herbal teas and elixirs, powered by the kinds of herbs I sampled, to get a more natural and healthy high. “For me, if you are using something that gives you an extreme high to cope with your emotional problems, that is not sobriety,” Trainer says. “Sobriety is coping with the natural mechanisms that you already have.”
Trainer moved to Santa Cruz a few years ago from Ohio, and Grant has lived here for eight years. They decided to open the hammock cafe in the former Homeless Garden Project building more than a year ago to serve herbal elixirs sourced from around the world, plus 11th Hour Coffee, bone broth, miso soup, and acai bowls. I’d never heard of many of the menu options at the new café, but all of them are derived naturally from plants. Roxa is opening sometime this month, pending final city approvals.
Sobriety can mean a number of things for different people (legal definitions aside), from complete substance abstinence to a moratorium on alcohol or many gray areas in between. I’ve met sober people that microdose mushrooms multiple times a day. Sobriety is what you make it, and that’s especially true at new-wave hospitality businesses like Roxa, where even though alcohol is off the menu that doesn’t mean you can’t leave feeling good.
“It’s totally accepting here to be sober in Santa Cruz, but at the same time, the only social opportunities for young people are at night, because everyone works during the day,” Trainer says. “Where do you go at night? To the bar. So people develop this dependency on drinking, sometimes without even realizing it. As a sober person, I don’t have anywhere to go at night to hang out with the people that I love.”
Roxa will fill a niche similar to Melo Melo Kava Bar on Pacific Avenue, which prides itself on being a place for those who are sober to socialize and relax without the pressure of drinking alcohol, or the culture that comes with it.
Melo Melo sells CBD drinks and kava—a drink derived from the kava root, originally enjoyed by Pacific Islanders, which suppresses anxiety and stimulates socialization. Kava is also for sale in New Leaf and Staff of Life. “You can get it at the salon down the street,” Grant says.
But unlike Melo Melo, Grant and Trainer take a different approach to food and wellness at Roxa, which revolves around myriad herbal goods that can replicate the effects—if sometimes only slightly—of alcohol and other substances.
“Coffee is an herb. Everyone consumes it every day, and no one thinks twice about the fact that it is an herb. Alcohol—the word comes from alchemy—is an elixir. These are things that we consume every day,” Trainer says. “The mission behind this type of herbalism is to bring people together who are strangers and make them feel as comfortable as possible without having to be inebriated, without poisoning themselves to have a conversation.”
Roxa will start off serving five to seven herbal elixirs, including their “Truth Serum,” a mixture of ashwagandha, tribulus, shatavari, and pine pollen and honey. “It’ll make you spill your guts,” Grant says. “Shatavari and tribulus are aphrodisiacs, but not like Viagra. It’ll just increase your circulation.”
Alongside the truth serum, there will also be what Grant calls “the Vessel.” “It is used for creativity and inspiration. Leonardo DiVinci and Michaelangelo used it on a regular basis,” she says. “It has rue, bacopa and acuama in it. Colors start to pop on the walls and stuff.”
Another elixir is called “Dapper Absolem,” named after the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. This elixir is smokeable. “We take a smoking gun and light herbs and inject the glass with smoke and cap it off,” Trainer says. “It’s a body relaxant.”
Lastly, they will be serving Mercury Oil, a drink that’s sourced from the Korean Demilitarized Zone. “That drink is crazy. You can feel your head pumping blood,” Grant says. “It’s 102 unique herbs harvested from the DMZ that’s black-fermented for five years,” Trainer says. “It’s virtually untouched by humans, and nature thrives. It’s an exotic, nutritional luxury that’s hard to find.”
The team at Roxa imports their herbs from all over the world, seeking the highest quality and consistency. Trainer says he learned about the benefits of superfoods and herbal elixirs to support the microbiome from online research, but also after coming to Santa Cruz. In particular, after working at Kiva. “I was immersed. I was literally sitting in a hot tub surrounded by a bunch of naked people singing songs all the time,” Trainer laughs. “Hippie central.”
At Roxa, everything is intentional, from the reclaimed wood to the petrified moss. Even the flooring is infused with Black Tourmaline—a stone known for it’s positive, grounding energy—and 150 herbal essences. “Our artist got so high when he was putting the tourmaline into the floor,” Grant laughs. “He seemed drunk.” After more than a year of renovations, including the addition of scaffolding, new flooring and room sectioning, the couple collected a fair amount of antique chemistry sets and unique drinkware to accompany their menu of herbal elixirs, coffee and acai bowls.
Their elixir bar looks like a steampunk medicine cabinet of Victor Frankenstein, plus some LED lights.
“We are talking about things that create fire and sparks, dry ice and color changing liquids,” Trainer says. “We are sandwiched between two of the most popular bars in the strip—Abbott Square and Pour—and there are a lot of people who want to be part of the scene but don’t drink alcohol. So we want to make it fun for them, too.”
Popularized by its reputation as a superfood, acai has skyrocketed to the top of the millennial popularity list alongside avocado toast and gourmet doughnuts. But that’s not why Grant and Trainer put it on the menu. Acai, a tart berry native to South America, is rich in antioxidants and low in sugar. It’s particularly high in resveratrol, which Trainer takes everyday, noting that it prevents the hardening of internal organs caused by a high-sugar and high-fat diet.
“Acai has changed my life. I could eat an acai bowl every day. It’s so good for you,” Trainer says. “I have seen great benefits from resveratrol. We have the resveratrol extract, which we will be mixing with our acai, so you’ll get a boost of it.”
Then there are the hammocks. Sourced from organic cotton and rubberwood, there won’t be many seats in the house. The hammock cafe idea is originally from Japan, where there are a number of hammock cafes, including Tokyo-based Mahika Mano. Trainer says he got the idea from Mahika Mano, though he hasn’t been there—he says he just really likes hammocks.
In the U.S., there has been talk of hammock cafes, including one that nearly opened in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2014 that fell victim to a lack of funding. Roxa may just be the country’s first official hammock cafe—or one that’s searchable online at least.
“Our beliefs are based on the microbiome, so diverse fibers,” Trainer says. “Health comes first through diet and exercise, but also supplemental herbal remedies and elixirs which facilitate social confidence.”
Aside from a diversity of fiber intake through fruits and vegetables, Grant and Trainer consume tonics daily for the nutrients. They aren’t consuming social lubricants for more than a few times a week. “In the beginning, people weren’t sure about the cafe idea,” Trainer says. “But now people are stoked. It’s flattering how excited people get.”
But these elixirs derived from herbs can also be overdone. All of the drinks are designed so that customers only need one to feel the effects. Just like alcohol or coffee, it’s possible to overdose. The elixirs range from strong to mild, and all of the baristas are trained to cut people off.
“What we are doing, it’s very niche,” Grant says. “There are probably under 10 other places in the U.S. that are doing what we are.”