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  • Tara Crutchfield

Agape Agora

Three Winter Haven women have joined their visions and talents to open a unique concept off Central Avenue. Gourmet ingredients, local produce, and an open kitchen provide an intimate hospitable experience at Agape Agora Trattoria and Marketplace. Light spilling into the arcade onto tables a shade lighter than lapis and painted lemons along the window are evocative of an Italian coastline. The scene is a calm, deep breath. And the meals? Hearty, wholesome, and made with love – the highest form.



Co-founders of Agape Agora Prima Burney, Wellie Liao, and Sheila Flecha navigate life and business with a deep-seated purpose. Intentionality is at the heart of the trattoria, from the color scheme, ingredients used and offered in the marketplace, and the reason for its opening. Prima Burney put it best. “It’s culture, it’s community, and it’s culinary.”


THE TRATTORIA TRIFECTA


Wellie Liao is the owner and sommelier of Obscure Wine Company, which opened in Winter Haven last summer. From a family of generational restaurateurs, Wellie has worked in every facet of the hospitality industry, from food trucks and fast-casual to Michelin Star restaurants. An affinity for wines the world over led her to pursue a winemaking and viticulture certification and eventually become a level 3 sommelier with credentials through the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, 3iC Italian Specialist, and U.C. Davis Certified in Winemaking and Viticulture. Liao was mentored by renowned wine expert and journalist Ian D’Agata. After a stint in the corporate world and a successful run with the Hawaiian and Taiwanese-inspired food truck, Happy Ending, Liao started her popular Central Avenue wine bar.


Open Door Wellness founder and yoga teacher Prima Burney started her business to help others navigate life and healing through wellness and herbal alchemy. The Winter Haven native and mother of three is a Polk State College and Le Cordon Bleu graduate and worked in the culinary industry for 15 years. She attended shamanism training, including Ayurveda, in 2019, which led her to begin testing spice blends for teas and tinctures. In 2020, Burney completed Yoga Teacher Training at Inside Out Yoga. That same year, the Slow Flow master made Open Door Wellness official and began offering certified organic herbal products, yoga, energetic work, and herbal wellness sessions. Burney joined Liao and the Obscure Wine Co. team last year.


Liao described Burney as “an employee that was no longer an employee but somebody that was a confidante, someone I could trust, somebody who could take my vision and have it as their own.” She continued, “That gave me the ability to let go so I could start creating again because that’s what I like to do.”


Sheila Flecha was born and raised in Puerto Rico. The military wife left to travel with her husband in 2005. While stationed in Guam, Flecha joined a program for culinary arts. She graduated with honors and became a mentor for other military spouses interested in the program. Flecha worked as a freelance personal chef upon returning to the States. Following a divorce, Flecha moved to Texas, which led her to a career as a corporate-level chef. Then the pandemic descended, and everything changed. Flecha had always loved Florida and had family here. She moved to the Sunshine State with no plan, waiting tables and getting side gigs to pay the bills. “I came to Winter Haven because, on Facebook, I saw the farmers market. I thought, ‘Oh my God, how cute.’ And here I am. I just fell in love with Winter Haven that day,” she said. She described the town as a “Hallmark movie” and joked that she’s still waiting for the handsome small town farmer to sweep her off her feet. After that, life fell into place. She even found a charming cottage overlooking Lake Howard in 2021. “I fell in love with this place,” Flecha said. “As much as I love home, and I want to go back home and sit on the beach drinking whiskey from a coconut, this feels like home to me. I don’t have any intentions to go anywhere because this is growing, it’s developing, and I’m excited.”



Flecha took her vision for a meal prep concept to Catapult in Lakeland, where she again met Prima, whom she’d already connected with over her teas at various markets. It wasn’t yet the right time to start her business, so Flecha entered sales for gourmet food products. Obscure became a client, and soon Liao became a friend. Out of the blue, Liao asked Flecha, ‘What do you want to do?’ “She just picked my mind,” Flecha said. “I shared my vision for the meal prep and the community kitchen and all of these things.”


“In listening to Sheila’s story, she had a vision of what does a single mom do when she has three-day-old vegetables that are about to go bad, and she has no idea what to do with them? She wanted a space where a person could walk in and ask, ‘What can I do with this? Can you show me? Can you do something for me?’ Being a place where it’s not just a restaurant, it’s a resource. It’s an intentional space where you can feel safe to be vulnerable and heal yourself,” Liao said.


When Liao approached her later about a new project she was working on, Flecha, unfulfilled by the ‘just another number’ slog of corporate work, said, “I wanted to be a partner. I wanted to invest money, time, blood, sweat, and tears. […] I’m turning 50 this year. I need something for my future. I need something to build for myself, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here.”


The Obscure owner discovered a higher calling. “I really found that my calling wasn’t to make a wine bar. It wasn’t to make a trattoria. It was to help people have access to their goals because that’s what’s fulfilled me more,” Liao said.


Prima Burney noted that stepping into Obscure and working with Liao was also a “moment of alignment” for her. She, too, wanted to be involved with this new concept which echoed her culinary yearnings. Coming out of culinary school, being in a traditional restaurant was never Burney’s goal. She was inspired by a place in Asheville that served as a kitchen, gourmet deli, and a place where intentional ingredients were used to make meals one could pick up. “You could get off work, and there was this responsibly sourced [food] that you could pick up for your family and know that you were feeding them in a way that was intentional. That was always what my vision was,” Burney said.


She envisioned picking up cheese and crackers, a great bottle of wine, and olives, all in one place for a picnic overlooking one of our beautiful lakes. “When [Wellie] said she wanted to do that, I told her I wanted in. She said, ‘That’s a partnership; that’s not just you coming to work.’ That’s when you know somebody sees you,” Burney said. Born and raised in Winter Haven, downtown has been a destination for Burney since she was young. “Seeing it go docile to seeing the renaissance that’s happening, and walking through these iron gates and having a set of keys to a door off of Central Avenue was more than I could have ever dreamed. To get that with these two beautiful ladies is a dream come true.”


LOVE AND GATHERING


Choosing a name for the trattoria and marketplace was as deliberate as the ingredients sourced for the food. “‘Agape’ is the highest form of love, and ‘Agora’ is a gathering space and also a place of assemblies,” Liao said. She sees the eatery as a space for connections, solutions, creativity, inspiration, love, food, and healing. “It makes complete sense to me,” Flecha said of the name. “To me, Agape is the conversation starter to talk to people about it. This is not just another restaurant.”


As with the Obscure Wine Company concept, lighting, music, interior design, and aroma, “Everything is chosen for a reason,” Liao said. “There are studies that what you say to your water and what you say out loud vibrates into the 70 percent water we are composed of. When you speak ‘I love you’ to your water, you’re ingesting that. […] It’s the same thing as preparing food with love.”



A WARM HUG


Purposefully-sourced gourmet ingredients line the shelves of the marketplace and the menu. Agape Agora’s offerings are ever-changing and, above all else, “prepared with love,” Burney said. The trio aims to utilize produce grown by local farmers to join their cultural backgrounds and world travels and create meals to be shared with the community. Folks have expressed to the Agape co-founders the desire for better options for their health and well-being – and they intend to fill that need.


Soups, salads, sandwiches, and daily specials are the menu’s backbone. “The concept of soup is so dear to my heart because it’s one of the first things I learned to do with my grandma,” Flecha said, describing a spoonful of hearty soup as a “warm hug.” The specials are crafted with fresh produce and gourmet/local products from their market to offer guests a taste and ideas for utilizing them. Flecha, Burney, and Liao plan for a demo kitchen with classes and meal prep eventually.


Partnerships within the community are vital to the owners. Cold pressed juices from Orgen D’nal, small batch gourmet jams made with real fruit from Heirloom Jams, sourdough from Born and Bread Bakehouse, pastries from Bandidas and Honeycomb, and produce from Farmer Will in Lakeland and Thorpe’s Organic Farm in Lake Wales are only some of the local partnerships Agape Agora has so far fostered.


NOW OPEN


Following a soft opening in January, one piece of feedback that especially pleased Burney was that the Agape Agora experience felt like pulling up a chair to a friend’s kitchen table. “I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my day,” she beamed. Flecha agreed. Though she’d been at the trattoria until midnight the night before, the work remains unburdensome. “It feels like home,” she said.


Excitement swelled for the Central Avenue trattoria long before it opened. “People saw the connections – it’s what we all lack,” Liao said. “You don’t die tomorrow thinking, ‘I should have had a nicer car.’ You leave this world thinking, ‘Who would I have spent more time with?’ […] This concept is the energy of love.”

The work is passion, the customers are a community, but above all else, the three women have become soul sisters. Wellie Liao grew up with a large, tight-knit stepfamily of many cultural backgrounds. Get-togethers were a “melding of it all.” “It feels so comfortable because I have those same cultures around me now,” she said. “Our partnership is basically what I grew up in. For me, it’s a comfort.”


Burney’s passion has been culinary since she attended school. She walked away from that for a time to start her business, Open Door Wellness, and then had to decide if she could move forward with that along with Agape Agora. The two women at her side cheered her on and told her constantly, ‘Don’t let that go. We’re going to figure this out, and on top of that, we’re going to build even more.’ “It gives you a place to plant the seeds and grow what you want,” Burney said. “It’s just easy.”


“We have found a common link between our purpose,” Flecha said. “I cannot wait for the future to see other projects coming together and keep building for this community.”


Photography by Amy Sexson

 

Agape Agora
254 W Central Ave B, Winter Haven
(863) 370-7037
FB: Agápe  Agorá
IG @agapeagora

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