The Air Out There

By ROBIN SUSSINGHAM / Photography By Bob Thompson | May 24, 2017
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Air out there spring 2017
Among 801 E. Main’s draws are a central teepee with seating and the Bearcat and Big 6 shop.

Lakeland’s foodie evolution is on display with cloud-like beignets and a similarly uplifting vibe

People come to 801 E. Main St. in Lakeland for the beignets. They stay for the magic.
    “I want to bring people together,” says owner Robyn Wilson, “in gratitude, community and love. That’s the spirit this place has.”
    It’s also an eclectic spirit, because the location is several things at once: beignet stand, entertainment complex, stylish shop, hang out.
    The main building, once a 1920s service station, now is a cozy gathering space filled with antiques and curiosities that’s a popular backdrop with photographers. There’s live music on Friday and Saturday nights, and a bar in the corner that sells beer and wine only. Hard liquor, says Robyn, doesn’t fit the family feel she wants. “It’s important that people can bring their kids,” she says. “You see everyone here – old, young, all races, all sexual orientations. Everyone is welcome.”
    Outside, the venue grounds are a calm oasis. Bamboo encircles the space, and in the evening the yard glows with twinkling lights. The whimsical décor includes a teepee with seating inside. A kit camper trailer, which has been fitted out with rustic wood, bench seating and pillows, invites customers to hang out and talk. A 1946 jeep that Robyn found at a local junkyard is filled with succulents. A community garden, planted and tended by local schoolchildren, sprouts lush, leafy edibles.
    There’s also a shop, Bearcat and Big 6, which sells stylish odds and ends, from design books to plants to one-of-a-kind sandals or T-shirts, and a regular Sunday food vendor, BB’s Soul, that sets up shop serving fried fish, fried chicken, candied yams and collard greens. A full dinner is only $9, a price point in tune with one of Robyn’s guiding principles: affordability.
    And even though her sharp sense of style casts a decidedly hip vibe over the place, she’s wary of the label. “My nightmare design is a place where you don’t feel hip enough to be there,” she says.

But the Beignets

    The star attraction remains The Poor Porker, purveyor of beignets and “campfire” coffee. Robyn, 35, and her former partner, Jarrid Masse, initially brought their concept to Lakeland’s downtown farmers market a few years ago, quickly gaining a loyal following. The delicious fried dough, along with their model good looks and hip, imaginative brand, drew big crowds and national publicity, with mentions in The Huffington Post, Marie Claire and Food & Wine.
    Today, the beignets are made and served from a trailer parked with a full view of the complex, presented three at a time in a boat tray, warm from the fryer. They’re puffy, light and pillowy, and collapse into warm fragrant air when you bite down on them. “A good beignet is full of air,” Robyn explains.
    In addition to the traditional beignets, which come dusted with powdered sugar, Robyn says the most popular are proving to be those coated in a brown butter caramel glaze and the namesake Poor Porker, laden with bacon and maple syrup.
    Every two weeks, Robyn devises a special, which gives her a chance to let her imagination run wild. “People wait for those,” she says. “They get so excited.” A recent example, the “Hello Sunshine,” is drizzled with a homemade lemon curd that has just the right amount of tanginess, topped with a sweet cream and pie crust crumble, then dusted with powdered sugar. Another big hit with customers was “The Valentine,” a confection of beignet topped with raspberry coulis and a meringue cookie crumble.
    The deep fried delights are served up with a sweet and smooth cold brew chicory coffee that’s wildly popular.

More to Come

    Expansion plans are in the works, and include a complete overhaul of the indoor bar to include light, fresh food items and what Robyn calls “ritualistic drinks,” such as Turkish and Cuban coffees and blooming tea. A native of Hawaii, Robyn also has very definite ideas about Hawaiian shave ice, which she’ll be bringing in for the summer, creating its exotic, naturally flavored syrups. And she has tested out Latin-inspired recipes, with plans to add those into the mix soon.
    Robyn’s rehabilitation of a formerly blighted corner of Lakeland into a little garden of enchantment is at the vanguard of the revitalization of an area east of downtown now known as the “Design District.” During the past few years, Lakeland’s inexpensive cost of living, along with a supportive economic development team and a busy entrepreneurial incubator, have combined to give rise to exciting, new food ventures – everything from small artisanal bakers to a three-story Brazilian restaurant in the heart of downtown.
    Robyn has played her part in this foodie evolution and has been credited with changing the community. It’s clear that she has ambitions that go beyond creating an eatery. She wants to create a culture.
    “I hope to start a movement,” she says, “of good vibes, of love and inspiration.
    “This is a sacred space. It’s not the walls or the food that makes this place. It’s an idea.”

801 E. Main, home of The Poor Porker, Bearcat and Big 6 and more, 801 East Main Street, Lakeland, 863-937-6915, thepoorporker.com.

Article from Edible Tampa Bay at http://edibletampabay.ediblecommunities.com/things-do/air-out-there
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