SAN FRANCISCO — Jack Chang flashes a crooked smile. His discolored teeth crowd together like old tombstones.
"I know why you come!" the Taiwanese-born cafe owner exclaims to Donna Cooke, one of his most loyal customers. "You want more peanut milk!"
Chang schemed up the unlikely beverage when his teeth, loosened by gum disease, drove him to find a painless way to consume peanuts, a favorite food since childhood. The creation had unexpected benefits, Chang says: It cured his gums and even slowed his baldness.
Cooke and other regulars who flock to Chang's KK Cafe swear by peanut milk: the mystical elixir that Chang concocted in the kitchen of his storefront burger joint in this city's bohemian Haight district.
Cooke drinks it for energy and, she says, because it keeps her eyes clear of infection.
"Listen, I'm not crazy," the Macy's worker said. "I know this stuff has made me a healthier woman."
The walls of Chang's eatery carry testimonials affirming the reputed powers of peanut milk. Although there's no hard proof of any health benefits, the beverage has spawned a cult of peanut milk fanatics.
The drink, which does not contain milk, is made from peanuts, grains, herbs and spices. Fans say it strengthens patients with AIDS and cancer, reverses baldness, heals wounds faster, prevents colds, reduces symptoms of menopause and soothes psoriasis. It's also said to be a hangover cure. Some drink it at bedtime to help them sleep; others choose it as an alternative to caffeine.
Chang, 58, suggests another benefit: "More sexual stamina!"
The diminutive Chang never dreamed that his passion for peanuts would lead to a product that is making a minor splash in the holistic foods industry. From a back shop endeavor that started with a pound of peanuts a day, Chang's company now processes 2,000 pounds a month and ships about 240,000 bottles a year. The 10.5-ounce containers of peanut milk sell for about $1.69.
Backed by investors, he opened a Bay Area production facility in 2004, and his product will soon be sold in Northern California, Oregon and Washington state by such high-end stores as Whole Foods Market Inc.
Peanut milk became available last month at about 20 outlets across Southern California, including 99 Ranch Market.
Chang calls it the "Miracle at the KK Cafe." Marketing his peanut milk under Signs and Wonders, a phrase borrowed from the Bible, Chang says the object isn't to make money, but to spread good health. He donates 10% of profit to charity.
Although not raised in any religion, Chang has had several experiences since moving the U.S. in 1988 that persuaded him to become a Christian -- including a near-fatal car accident.
If God isn't exactly Chang's copilot, he's on his board of directors. "We acknowledge God almighty as the head of this company," says the website of the firm, Trinity Products. The label says peanut milk is "produced with love."
Health experts are skeptical of Chang's product, which boasts that it provides "stamina and energy" and "is good for your immune system."
"We live in an age where there is great anxiety about health," said Dr. Rajiv Bhatia of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "This product, like others, seems to capitalize on that anxiety."
Chang says he's no scientist. He's clueless as to what would make peanut milk work. But he knows it worked for him.
In 1999, a chronic gum condition had made Chang's teeth so loose that he could no longer eat solid foods. Yet he still craved peanuts. So he decided to brew up a liquid form. Each night after his restaurant closed, he went to work in his kitchen, boiling a bag of peanuts down to mulch, adding grains and other ingredients.
At first the results were too oily. Many initial batches tasted terrible. But Chang didn't throw away his failures. He drank them and kept experimenting.
Three months after he started, Chang noticed that his gums no longer hurt. He also stopped losing hair.
"Ha!" he says. "Drink peanut milk! No more hair on pillow!"
The drink has the look and consistency of milk, with a definite peanut taste. Chang didn't plan to sell his product, but customers who saw him drink the mixture asked about it. Change let them try it for themselves, and word spread as customers started to report their own claims of astonishing results.
William Garcia Ganz, 58, who suffers from HIV and cancer, is another regular customer. One day, Chang noticed how sickly Ganz looked and began pushing him to drink peanut milk. Chang told Ganz that his older brother died from complications of AIDS in San Francisco in 1990.
Ganz, a musician and conductor, was unable to pay, so Chang gave him a free daily quart. During his exhausting chemotherapy, Ganz said, he lived solely on peanut milk, gaining weight, before his cancer went into remission.
"I don't know if it was a miracle, but this drink definitely tided me over during those awful months," he said.