It all began with some bad Chinese food and a bout of food poisoning.
Two weeks later, William Pauley of Warrenton was in the ICU with a bleeding ulcer. Though he’d suffered most of his life with ulcers, this was new.
Pauley contacted a friend specializing in naturopathic nutrition, and she recommended he try a fermented drink known as kombucha. He began drinking the beverage almost every day, and three months later he saw a noticeable change in his overall health.
“Something was new; something was different,” Pauley said.
Fast-forward 10 years, and Pauley is co-owner of Confluence Kombucha, a cafe on Manchester Avenue in the Grove. Along with an ever-changing selection of kombucha on tap, the cafe offers gluten-free and mostly vegan cuisine inspired by what’s in season and available locally.
Though working exclusively with local farmers means certain ingredients aren’t available year-round, Pauley prefers keeping things within the community. The cafe gets most of its ingredients from a dozen or so local farmers as well as from Eat Here St. Louis, which sources its products from within a 150-mile radius.
“You can get strawberries all year-round from Driscoll’s, but that’s not really the idea,” Pauley said. “The idea is to support local business.”
After years of working in St. Louis kitchens including Blood & Sand and Juniper (then Entrée Underground), Pauley decided he wanted his own, opening Confluence Kombucha in September 2016. The cafe first served kombucha in January 2017 after receiving the necessary permits and licenses.
There’s alcohol in kombucha. Not much — 0.6 percent to 1.1 percent at Confluence Kombucha — but enough to require a permit.
Kombucha is made by adding a symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria known as SCOBY to brewed sweet tea, which then ferments in a cloth-covered container, typically for a few weeks. At Confluence Kombucha, the process takes anywhere from 21 to 60 days, Pauley said.
The cafe usually has about 400 gallons of kombucha brewing at a time, and its fermentation room is stacked with huge jars of kombucha of different flavorings and at different stages of readiness. One thing each jar has in common is its SCOBY; all originated from a SCOBY that Pauley bought online in 2010.
“Now I got 200 jars of it,” Pauley said while prepping an order of roasted seaweed and brown rice kimbap tacos, a traditional Korean dish.
Pauley serves as the cafe’s creative force, cooking and brewing based on what ingredients are available to him. He said he decided on the name Confluence Cafe because of his interest in uncommon flavor combinations.
“We’re creating an experience here that you’re not gonna get anywhere else in the world,” Pauley said.
A co-owner at Confluence Kombucha, Julie Villarini, handles the business end. With experience as an industrial engineer in Detroit, Nashville, Tenn., and Germany, she understands the world of regulations. She invested in the cafe believing it would be welcomed in St. Louis’ health and wellness community.
“There was definitely an opportunity here,” Villarini said.
She has lived her whole life with celiac disease, which makes gluten damaging to her small intestines, and is proud to provide a haven for customers with dietary restrictions. The cafe carefully prepares all its food by hand, she said, so there’s no fear of cross-contamination.
“When you leave, you feel good,” Villarini said.
Amanda Willson, 41, of St. Charles was directed to Confluence Kombucha by a cellphone app called HappyCow, which is an online service listing eateries specializing in vegan, vegetarian and health food.
St. Louis native Carly Loncaric, 29, has been a weekly customer of Confluence Kombucha since October 2017. As a vegan, she said transparency in food preparation is very important.
“You can see them preparing the food,” Loncaric said while Pauley cooked nearby in the cafe’s open kitchen.
On this visit, Loncaric bought uncooked tempeh, an Indonesian food made from fermented soybeans, and a small jug of chaga kombucha. Chaga is a type of mushroom that grows on birch trees in the northern hemisphere.
“You can’t just buy that anywhere,” Loncaric said.
Confluence Kombucha products are now featured at local businesses including Local Harvest Grocery, Vicia and Southwest Diner, and the cafe is looking into brewing nonalcoholic kombucha in order to expand its reach and consumer base, Villarini said.
Just don’t bother asking what those ingredients are.
“Our approach is novel,” Villarini said. “And we’re just gonna keep that to ourselves.”
Where Confluence Kombucha, 4507 Manchester Avenue • More info 314-833-3059; confluencekombucha.com • Hours 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday, Friday, Saturday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday