Two Peas in a Big Pond

by eugene kim


“I’m a grinder.”

Scott Pingel speaks the words with satisfaction. I’m looking across a picnic table at a smiling, compact man in his 50’s wearing light khakis and a striped, neutral-toned polo shirt. Trim, gray hair, a square jaw and rectangular frames wrapping crinkled eyes all contribute to an affable solidity. Scott sits straight with his hands neatly folded together and delivers his words with a crisp Texas twang. Not the kind of lazy drawl you hear from TV cowboys… more like the plucking of a banjo string.

It’s nearing dusk on a Tuesday and we’re sitting outside SquareRut Kava Bar on South Congress Ave in Austin, TX. This is the first kava bar ever to grace the State of Texas. The bar is quiet right now but a few customers have arranged themselves inside, quietly sipping kava drinks and clicking on their laptops. They look meditative and absorbed as they go about their business.

In person, Scott exudes an aw-shucks demeanor that feels unfiltered and almost gritty. In my imagination, everyone from the windswept Texas Panhandle is this way. Honest, real and salt-of-the-earth. But his humility is tinged with pride and more than a little excitement when he starts talking about the business that he and his wife started here four years ago. I think back to our first conversation sometime in October when we talked on the phone for nearly two hours. Scott told me then that he slept only four hours a night because his mind would race with all the things he wanted to do. I could tell this was a point of pride for him – that he found joy in labor, not rest.

Where are you from, Scott?

I’m from Texas, born and raised. Grew up in a small town called Perryton in the Texas Panhandle.

How did you make your way to Austin?

You know, in the Texas Panhandle, we have like five trees, so you get down here and it just feels a little more like hill country type living. I’ve always wanted to live here, just never had a reason to until kava. If kava is going to work anywhere in the State of Texas, it’s going to work in Austin. And if it’s not, it’s not going to work anywhere.

Where were you before Austin?

South Florida. That’s where we ran across kava. Florida is nice to visit, not so much to live and try to raise a family. So we were looking for ways to get out of there but keep the revenue coming in from my insurance consulting business. My wife is from Chicago – no way I’m going to get her to move to the Texas Panhandle from Chicago, right? So we came and visited Austin and she fell in love with the city. And that’s when we came up with the concept of opening a kava bar in Texas.

Why kava?

Well, I was probably driving 200 miles a day in South Florida, with traffic, for the consulting business. And it just seemed like every corner I turned, I saw a kava bar. It piqued my interest just because I saw it so much.

Right, so you gave it a try?

Yep, went in and tried it, that same night had the best night’s sleep that I could remember. My dreams were vivid and I remembered them clearly the next day. I woke up refreshed, I wasn’t still groggy. I just got that REM sleep. Introduced Tracy to it and she got the same thing. At the time, our son was about six months old and so our sleep patterns were way off. Kava helped get us back on a pattern where we could be more productive during the day. That was what sold us.

Interesting, it sounds like the opposite of what I feel like after a night of drinking.

We’re not big drinkers but kava acted as a substitute for drinking too. Certainly, if we needed to get out of the house, we got to the point where we thought, why go to a sports bar or anything like that? We just started going to the kava bar. I think we achieved the same effect, you know, we were able to wind down, relax. Only difference was that we weren’t impaired or any of the other stuff you get with drinking.

So you can drive, you can think and you don’t get in fights with people. 

Yeah, yeah. [laughs] I have not seen a fight at a kava bar yet, so hopefully we’re not the first.

And when did the light bulb go off? What made you think this could be a good business?

You know, we probably consumed kava for a good two years before we ever put pen to paper. And it was one of those things where we were ready for a change and I don’t know if we were joking about it or not but we started talking about opening a kava bar in Texas. But once we started putting it down on paper, I began to think “Hey, we can actually make this work.”

What’s it like to work with Tracy? She’s your wife so does that make working together difficult, fun or somewhere in between?

Surprisingly, it’s probably ideal. I mean, I know most husbands and wives can’t work and live and spend 24/7 together. We do it. We enjoy it. I don’t know if we can say it’s due to our kava consumption but we just don’t bug each other. We work well together. She keeps me grounded… I’m certainly the one that probably feels like I’m on Cloud 9 all the time.

She’s the realist?

She’s the realist. And I don’t agree with it a lot. But she keeps me on that sixth cloud. We’re good together and I know that’s unusual.

Would you say you’re symbiotic? 

Yeah we complement each other. I kind of leave her to the books side of our business. She manages the finances. I’m the one who spends it!

Any business advice you’d pass on to a younger version of yourself?

You just gotta believe in it. Believe in it and just work it. I mean, you’re going to have those days, those weeks, those months, where you may feel like it’s not worth it. But you push through. And don’t chase the dollar. If you build a good business, you have a good product, and you have good people working for you and providing good service, the money takes care of itself. That’s kind of been my philosophy.

So out of those three (good business, good product, good people & service), which element do you think is the most critical?

Customer service. You can go to the best place in town and if you’ve had horrible service, you just get so turned off that you won’t revisit it. It doesn’t matter if it’s food, drink, entertainment, anything.

From what I’ve heard, you’re working on some new things. Want to share some details?

Austin is known for festivals, right? I mean, we’ve got festivals for everything. So we jumped into that arena. We tried to go out there and sell our kava drinks on a 110-degree day and you know, it seemed like they’d always put me right next to the fresh-squeezed lemonade vendor and the beer vendor. I mean, literally right in the middle of them. We’d sit there and watch. The lemonade stand would be 150 people deep, the beer stand 500 people deep, and we got 10. So we thought, let’s try to develop something more refreshing that still gives the kava effect. We started coming up with some ideas, we opened our little lab, we got our proprietary extraction process developed. Started messing with the recipe and formula and selling the lemonade out of our stores. And got a very good response. You get 100% of the kava effect, 180 degrees on the flavor profile. It’s fresh-squeezed lemonade, basically, with a little kick. That’s how that was brought to market.

Before we head back inside for a few kava drinks, my final question per NextSeed tradition… What’s your favorite Disney movie?

Finding Nemo. It’s a big pond out there and the thing with Nemo, he was a little fighter and he wanted adventure.

Adventure has a way of finding you when you try new things, that’s for sure. And I bet it’s a little less lonely and a lot more fun when the right person is riding shotgun.

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