Poor Porker Owners Pushing Forward Without Founder

Internal tension and differences over management blew up at The Poor Porker last week, and its co-founder was dismissed — prompting an online hailstorm over the weekend.

Owners Wesley and Ashley Barnett say they want to ride out the storm and keep the business going. But they will move forward without Robyn Wilson, co-founder and primary creative talent behind the popular hangout.

Robyn Wilson serves customers on The Poor Porker’s opening day: Nov. 7, 2015

The special type of wrath unique to social media fell upon the establishment as word got around.

“I’m taking my money elsewhere … seriously, what a joke,” one woman posted on The Poor Porker Facebook page.

She and dozens of others clapped back after a post said that ownership had not changed.

“We are aware that there is some confusion currently and wanted to shine some light. The owners are the same and have not changed,” the business post said. “We’ve simply restructured some managerial positions and you can still expect the same great smiles, service, food and drinks that we always have.”

“Lies!” many admonished. “All lies!”

It was the truth that the Barnetts retained full ownership. But  behind-the-scenes negotiations had turned Wilson willingly into an employee instead of an owner — and later a former employee — and confusion reigned.

Wilson posted on her personal page and on Instagram for The Poor Porker,  which she  continued to control after she left. Clearly smarting from her dismissal, she complained of being abruptly shut out of the dream spot she built. She made accusations that her exit was handled poorly.

She said only she has the recipes The Poor Porker is known for, and that the Barnetts and some of the staff had “conspired” behind her back to oust her.

The Barnetts said they regret the confusion amid the  changes, and were glad to discuss the situation to let people know what’s going on.

They said they care about Wilson — admire her —  and were happy to be in business with her. But things were falling apart, and it was time to aggressively strive to keep the business afloat, they said.

Located at 801 E. Main St. in Lakeland, The Poor Porker draws in foodies, music lovers and hipsters. Its popularity is credited to Wilson, who founded it several years ago with former partner Jarrid Masse.

The venue has attracted local and national musicians.

But it has not attracted a profit, said the Barnetts.

Changes had to be made, they said, even though the decision to let Wilson go was difficult.

“We gave her full, 100 percent management and creative control. As far as the public was concerned, it was her business,” Wesley Barnett said.

In October 2018, negotiations were made for the Barnetts to take 100 percent ownership. “It wasn’t a profitable business,” he said. “We were still on the road to profitability.

“The reason we even wanted to take 100 percent … In the event that we did shut down, we don’t want her to be left liable. We were looking out for her benefit.”

Paperwork setting that up was drawn up then, but documents were not signed and official until last week.

Along with the change in ownership percentage, it was decided that Wilson would receive $6,000 for her stake in the business: “That was the dollar amount we named in exchange for her share of the business, but it also helps her get back on her feet,” Barnett said.

The business at this point has not made a profit, so the funds were part of their effort to extend goodwill, the Barnetts said.

Wilson has indisputably been the talent, energy and creative current of bohemian savvy that made The Poor Porker a happening hotspot. Unfortunately, Barnett said, her gifts did not extend well into the business management part of The Poor Porker.

“The business has continued to operate in an unprofessional manner, and we had given her ample opportunity to run it as she wished,” he said.

Social media posts from various people and positions went unchallenged  on two points:

  1. The Poor Porker would never have come to life without Barnett’s financial backing, and that it has been quite generous.
  2. The Poor Porker would not have bloomed into the peacock-like treasure it presents to Lakeland today without Wilson’s energy and vision.

“Robyn is a very, very creative person, and we give her complete credit for creating the atmosphere here,” Barnett said. “But we had to start making money. It was a disservice to keep letting it fail.”

The couple says they tried to work with Wilson to remedy some of the managerial issues. “We met at least on a biweekly basis, Ashley Barnett said. “She knew it was a leaky bucket.”

Things were so rocky that a number of The Poor Porker’s dozen or so employees came forward to express concerns about the future of the business and situations they said were being mishandled or neglected.

“She was our employee at that point, but she was not acting like a manager,” Wesley said. “But let me be clear: We do not disparage Robyn. People have loved what she has done here, and it’s because of her The Poor Porker exists.

“This was not an easy decision,” he said. “But we made a business decision.”

Despite the loss of its creator, the Barnetts said the recipes indeed are intact, employees there continue to love the venue and want to keep their jobs — and they are committed to try to save it.

“We feel a responsibility to the employees, and to the community, to work to keep this going,” Wesley Barnett said.

Despite it all, Wilson’s public posts showed signs of positivity as well. “My goal is to move forward,” she said on Facebook. “I am eternally grateful for the support of our community and to all those who came to The Poor Porker through the years.

“I intend to learn everything I can from this situation. There are many great things to accomplish together in Lakeland and beyond.”

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