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  • Tara Crutchfield

Unfiltered Lakeland

When Geanie Folder walked into 801 E. Main, inspiration struck her like lightning. “I knew I could do something with the building,” she said. “I looked at probably 11 or 12 buildings in Lakeland, and I just know. I know when I walk in if I’m going to be able to make it happen.” 


Folder quit her job in 2016 and started a vintage market, the Beatnik Exchange, the following year. She opened Unfiltered Bartow in 2019 and adapted her business to ride out the pandemic. She launched Unfiltered Lakeland on February 25, 2023, in partnership with Wesley and Ashley Barnett and her son, Tray Towles. 



CHAMPAGNE AND GRAVY


With their Lakeland location opening, it was a good time to rebrand and take the concept back to its roots – especially in Bartow – the way she’d first envisioned it. That vision means less emphasis on food and more on retail and art, crochet, and sewing classes. Unfortunately, the Unfiltered Punta Gorda store closed post-Hurricane Ian at the end of last year. “That was heartbreaking,” Folder said. “It just wasn’t meant to be down there.”


In Bartow, Folder and company are curating a first-floor shopping experience with boho-style goods, vintage fashion, new merchandise, and the build-you-own-brim hat bar, Champagne and Gravy. Hidden Gem Consignment out of North Lakeland is opening another location on the second floor there as well. 

The custom hat bar is Folder’s baby and has opened its third location inside her marketplace and coffee shop, Unfiltered Lakeland. Folder described Champagne and Gravy as her “newest love.” She added, “It belongs to me solely, and I get to be creative. Other than designing the spaces, I’ve lost that whole creative part of me. I vowed going into this year I would try to niche out something for just me.”



Inspired by her friend who owns the vintage shop, Echoes of Retro in Orlando, Folder started working with hats. Out of respect, she asked her friend permission to go forward with her own brimmed hat concept. “By all means,” her friend said. The pair took a trip to Texas to tour the Lone Star hat bar scene, and when they returned, Folder said, “I’m doing this!” 


She came up with the name Champagne and Gravy, which her friend now also uses. “I’ve expanded that brand to include anything that I love, that I would keep in my home,” Folder said. “While the hat bar is the focus, there is clothing, bath stuff, lots of fun things, and more fun things coming for that brand. 


THE SPACE 


In addition to Champagne and Gravy inside Unfiltered Lakeland, the property hosts three other micro storefronts: East of These, My Crazy Plant Life, and The Vintage Warehouse. Folder noted the location’s retail popularity. They have a waiting list of almost 20 stores that would snatch up a micro storefront immediately if space were available (and more space may be on the way). 


The Unfiltered marketplace is entirely her own. Sage walls contrast funky plush couches, mauve loveseats, knick-knacks strewn here and there in a way that just works, and a large mural encouraging patrons to “Live Life Unfiltered.” An antique Packard organ draws the eye as you enter, a remnant of the building’s former life as the Poor Porker. “I saw them build this, and I was saddened by the whole thing. I know what it’s like to lose a dream,” Folder said. “I vowed to pay homage to them, pay homage to Lakeland.” To Lakeland’s delight, she kept the beignet cart – and all of the Poor Porker staff. 



“These stores need to be the least commercialized as possible – every last detail,” Folder said of the Unfiltered concept. From the onset, she asked herself,’ Would I put that in my home?’ and ‘What kind of coffee cup would I serve if I had company over?’ “It was always built on people being able to be who they were,” she said. This individuality is the brand’s pulse. And though Folder is confident in her art and style, she was nervous about opening. “It was crazy,” she said. “I worried if we were going to be good enough for Lakeland – would Lakeland embrace us? […] There’s always that fear when you open, ‘Is anyone coming?’ and ‘Can we hold our own [here].’”


To her relief, the community rallied around her business with a steady line of daily patrons. “So far, it’s been phenomenal,” she said. “I would be remiss if I didn’t say how many people come to bat for you, how many people stand up for you, how many people show you grace, how many people show you leeway. If you just reach out – how many people are willing to mentor and help you.”


Folder said, “We house artists, we are a marketplace, and we are an experience. A coffee shop is just a portion of what we do.” Food and coffee may not be at the heart of the business, but they certainly weren’t an afterthought. Unfiltered Lakeland serves tea and various coffee drinks using Lakeland’s Ethos Roasters. Uncle Nick’s Bagels grace the menu, along with baked goods and beignets — traditional and “The Poor Porker” topped with maple syrup and bacon — along with soups, salads, and specials like the Waffled Grilled Cheese and Waffled Monte Cristo.


A social media post mentioned plans to expand portions of the business in the future. Folder divulged ideas for quirky portable air-conditioned ‘houses’ in the courtyard during summertime. Unfiltered Lakeland is also looking to add more retail space in some capacity. Folder said they are in the process of obtaining their beer and wine license too. With that will come live music and woodfired pizza in the courtyard. 


Folder plans to bring the Beatnik Exchange to Lakeland at least quarterly (maybe even monthly). She started the bohemian vintage market in the middle of a field in Brooksville. The free-spirited event, gathering an eclectic union of artisans, was later hosted at Music Ranch and SUN’ n FUN but stopped for a time. Folder is excited to bring it back to platform artists and makers. 


ALL ABOUT THE STORY 


The Unfiltered brand is one of collaboration. That collaboration is rooted deep within founder Geanie Folder. “It’s all about the story,” she said. And, pushing through the discomfort of having the spotlight on her, she was ready to share hers. 


“I grew up homeless,” Folder began. She was the oldest of five siblings who lived with their dad, sometimes in a car or squatting in houses. “It sounds bad, but it was all I knew. I view the early part of my childhood as this beautiful, adventurous life, and that kind of set the pace for what I would do into adulthood.” 


Art is another central part of the Unfiltered brand. It’s an essential foundation in Folder’s life. There was a period in her childhood when she and her siblings were sent back to live with their mother and stepfather. “We lived in this old house, and there was a closet on the second story. He [her stepfather] would lock me in there for weeks,” Folder said. “My brother would shove me pencils under the door. By the time my dad came and got us again, I had taken a pencil and two crayons and completely muraled the entire closet. For me, it saved me. [...] The art portion of this comes from knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt how art is good for us and how art can save our lives. That’s why I never veer far from that.”


She eventually adopted her brothers and sisters at age 16 and spent her whole childhood making a home for them. “It was always important to me that they felt loved, they had a place to go, they felt safe. Whatever shabby furniture we managed to get, we made it comfortable, and we made these places feel like home,” Folder said. 


When the last sibling left home, she knew, “I wanted to be able to provide a space that felt the same for people who wanted to come or needed to come or needed a space. That’s the bones of why we’re here. [...] I only know how to live that way. I don’t know what else to do to serve my community and serve others other than what I’m doing.”


Photography by Amy Sexson




Unfiltered Lakeland 
801 E Main St., Lakeland
FB: Unfiltered Lakeland
IG @unfiltered_welcome_home

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