LGBTQ business owner believes Winter Garden targeting him over hosting drag and other events
Updated: Mar 31
City maintains it's enforcing laws for all businesses.
Updated March 30 to reflect the cancelation of a Winter Garden burlesque show.
Updated March 29 to reflect a statement from the city and information about a local business.
The way Brandon Wood tells it, he was simply trying to bring more people into his kombucha bar.
After his Main House Market (along with the vegan deli Kind Cleaver that shares the space) closed for regular business, Wood hosted special events. There were standup comedy nights, a Mischief Managed party, held after the Harry Potter fan convention LeakyCon, and an Ugly Sweater party during the holidays. And every other month regulars gathered for Drag Bingo with celebrity Tora Himan, Season 2 winner of the reality show Camp Wannakiki.
“It’s bingo hosted by a drag queen. We don’t really have drag shows,” Wood said.
The events were open to patrons 21 and older, so they would not run afoul of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent prohibitions on kids attending drag performances.
Wood also hosted two burlesque shows — one around Halloween and a late Valentine’s Day-themed event Feb. 25. Burlesque is typically more “tease” than strip show and several Orlando bars like Mathers, Dreams Lounge and Shots Bar regularly showcase burlesque performances. So, Wood was stunned when two officers from the multi-agency Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation’s human trafficking and vice unit showed up March 3 to shut down his shows.
According to MBI’s incident report, obtained through a public records request, Winter Garden Police had received complaints about “nudity and lewdness” at Main House Market, which was “reportedly hosting acts that were sexual in nature, including drag shows and possible strip shows.”
The report said undercover agents from MBI were sent to investigate and found a “typical burlesque show … The girls all stripped down to their panties and no further. They also removed their tops and had their nipples covered with tassels or designed pasties that complimented their outfit. At no time was a sexual organ openly displayed, nor interacted with.”
“They came to burlesque as customers and drank and tipped and everything,” Wood told VoxPopuli during an interview at the bar last week. “Then a week after that, they came in and basically said that burlesque in Orange County is illegal. I said, You know, many bars and clubs in Orlando do burlesque. And they said, Well, it's illegal.”
Adult entertainment is legal in Orange County, confirmed municipal law expert Clifford B. Shepard of the Maitland firm Shepard, Smith, Kohlmyer & Hand. “Just drive down Orange Blossom Trail, and you’ll figure that out,” he said.
Adult entertainment is legal in Winter Garden, as well. City ordinance has no prohibitions against adult entertainment. The PinUp A Go-Go burlesque show had been advertised for April 19 at Pilars Loft on Plant Street in downtown Winter Garden, but the producer recently cancelled it and is refunding tickets, telling VoxPopuli the show wasn't ready. Becky Roper, owner of Pilar's, said in an email that the show "never got to contract on the rental."
That may have been fortuitous. Because what’s not legal is showcasing adult entertainment without a specific license for an adult entertainment venue — something that both Pilar's and Main House Market lack. It's punishable by a $500 fine or 60 days in county jail.
“I just promised to never do it again,” Wood said. “Since I promised, everything was dropped.”
A gut punch
Wood thought the whole unpleasant episode was behind him until a week later on March 10 when a city code enforcement inspector served him with two code violations. One was for blocking the view through his front window into his establishment — a requirement for any venue serving alcohol. The other was for not having a business license to host events. Not just burlesque performances, which he’d already told detectives he’d stop. Any events.
That was a gut punch straight to his bottom line.
Wood posted on Instagram that, until further notice, all Main House Market events were canceled. In a separate Instagram post, he said other businesses were not being cited “for doing their own free public events inside their location” and that because of “unjust circumstances, we will have to relocate.”
“We’re a small business that’s trying to make money and survive,” he told VoxPopuli. “Foot traffic is not great on the side streets. The city has done nothing for us to get people down here. When we try to do things on our own, we get pushback. They’re like, Oh yeah, you can host events. But, I guess, it’s only some businesses that are allowed to host events and not all of them. It’s very frustrating.”
Wood said he’s trying to comply with the city’s requests. He went to City Hall to get another license — but was unsuccessful. “Even the women at the desk, when I went to go get the license from the city, I said, Hey, I need a business tax license, and they looked me up and they were like, You already have two. Why do you need another one? And I said, I need one for events. And they were like, No, you need to go get a permit for that.”
‘Not a new business aspect’
Anyone who owns a business in Winter Garden is required to have a business license or business tax receipt (BTR) that defines the scope of the business. VoxPopuli has one as a digital media company. Wood has three. “I have a retail one. We have a restaurant [license] for the Kind Cleaver [owned by Justin Rodgriguez], and then I have a restaurant/bar for Main House Market,” he said.
Kelly Carson, Winter Garden’s planning director, told VoxPopuli in an email that the city required Wood to have another BTR for events because the events he was holding were “the primary and only attractions taking place at the time — charged and ticketed separately, with the normal business operations shut down to accommodate them. Because of this, the events were not incidental and accessory to Main House Market’s normal kombucha bar & deli use — they became the primary use.”
Carson said the city needs BTRs for all “primary uses” that take place within a business.
“If [Main House Market] is having ticketed events and closing their doors to normal operations of their kombucha bar, they also would be categorized as an indoor theater,” she wrote in the email. “We would review this indoor theater use in the same way we would the Garden Theatre.”
She said an indoor theater BTR costs $172.
Scroll through Main House Market’s Instagram feed, however, and it’s evident that ticketed events were held during the bar’s off-hours and on days the bar was closed. “Normal business operations” were not, as Carson noted, “shut down to accommodate them.” But even after suggesting that he’d stick to free events, Wood said he still got pushback from the city.
“Offering de facto free events may entail purchases that would still classify your business as an entertainment venue i.e. requiring drink purchases, minimums and such,” Carson wrote to Wood in a March 17 email.
Wood is incredulous that his kombucha bar/vegan deli/retail store is being pegged as an event space.
“So, do I need a license to host my own birthday party here?” he said, exasperated. “If other bars are doing karaoke or events to bring in revenue, then what's different about what I'm doing?"
Carson said the city needs more information on “this new aspect of Mr. Wood’s business.”
Wood said he’s held Drag Bingo every other month since his kombucha bar opened two years ago. He wants to know why this is suddenly a problem now. “This is not a new business aspect.”
Although the MBI incident report specifically mentioned that Winter Garden Police received complaints about “drag shows” at Main House Market, Carson told VoxPopuli the city had not received complaints about Drag Bingo. But drag, long associated with the LGBTQ+ community, has become a favorite target in DeSantis and the conservative right's culture wars, which have resurrected long discredited myths about gay men preying on children. For instance, House Bill 1423 — introduced by Republican Randy Fine and currently being considered in the State Administration & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee — characterizes drag as “an immediate, serious danger to the public health, safety, or welfare” of children. If passed, proprietors who allow minors to attend drag performances would face the loss of their business license, thousands of dollars in fines and possible jail time.
Meanwhile, NBC News reported that DeSantis is relying on a Florida Supreme Court case, which shut down a Hallandale drag club in 1947, to threaten the liquor licenses of three Florida venues — Orlando’s Plaza Live and R House and the Hyatt Regency in Miami — within the last year for allowing minors into drag shows. Just last week, Boone High School’s “Drag & Donuts with Mama Rose'' was canceled after the state Department of Education deemed it inappropriate for performer Jason DeShazo, who runs a nonprofit that mentors LGBTQ+ kids, to meet with the school’s Queer and Ally Alliance. School officials, teachers and staff were threatened with investigations and professional repercussions if they supported the event, Fox35 reported. DeShazo also had to quickly find a new venue for his charity’s annual fundraiser earlier this month after the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center instituted an 18+ age restriction on his G-rated drag show, which includes kids performing, although not in drag, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
‘Purely a code issue’
Between the police visit and the code violations, Wood said he feels scared and gaslit by the city. "They keep making me feel like I’m the culprit that’s doing something wrong.” He said sending the detectives from the human trafficking unit made him feel “like I’m some kind of felon.” He didn’t want to speculate to VoxPopuli about the motivation behind the extra scrutiny, but in an email to Carson, obtained through a public records request, he was blunt in his assessment:
“I feel unsafe by you, City of Winter Garden and by the Winter Garden Police Department. As a gay business owner, I am unjustly being harassed, attacked, targeted, and discriminated against by the actions that you all have taken.”
Asked to respond, Carson said in an email to VoxPopuli that that was “a baseless accusation that is very hurtful to me personally. I take my role as a City official very seriously, and it is of paramount importance to treat everyone equally regardless of race, nationality, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other external factors.”
Carson said in her email that the matter was “purely a code issue. We require this of every business operating in the City.”
Still, it’s unclear if the city uniformly enforces this event license requirement for all businesses. VoxPopuli found a couple of local businesses that routinely host ticketed events that are not "incidental and accessory" to their core brand, like a boutique or a bar offering fitness classes. After VoxPopuli brought this to Carson’s attention, she said she would look into it “to ensure they are meeting all code requirements.”
UPDATE March 29: After this story was published, Carson emailed VoxPopuli that one of the businesses would be required to get an additional BTR for their special events as well as "submit additional documentation to determine if the events meet code regulations."
Carson also shared the following statement from the city: "The City of Winter Garden has a thriving business community. If a business runs afoul with the established code or business license, the City will work with the business owner in an attempt to find a solution to the code violations. In regards to Main House Market, the City has requested to meet with the owner to address this business’ code violations."