Wynwood Yard is a lowkey startup and culture incubator

Della Heiman got the call around 2 p.m. last Friday: Would Wynwood Yard, her outdoor food/drink/culture/startup community, be able to accommodate Shakira — yes, that Shakira — for a pop-up concert in a few hours?

This call would have been unthinkable about a year ago, when Wynwood Yard was ground zero for Miami’s Zika virus outbreak; and especially unbelievable a year before that, when the space looked like a deserted parking lot.

But just two and a half years after Heiman, a Midwest native, moved to Miami, the Yard has become the source of livelihoods for 130 people, not counting the dozens of individuals who host events and concerts there throughout the month. It has grown from a handful of food trucks into 16 different fully operational companies that bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

And now, world-renowned pop stars.

For Heiman, the Yard has finally realized its true potential of becoming more than just an outdoor eatery, but a true startup incubator and cultural cornerstone that has attracted worldwide attention.

This is the story of how it got there.

‘Vague thesis’

Heiman, a Cincinnati native whose parents worked in the textile industry, was traveling abroad before she started Harvard Business School, and became enthralled with global food culture. She was also an eager experimenter in the kitchen, and her friends began encouraging her to host pop-up dinners.

As Harvard was winding down, she began to spend more and more time in Miami with her family. She soon sensed an opportunity.

“There was just a lot of white space — a lot of potential, a lot of entities pushing to make Miami more of a startup hub,” she said. “Everyone I met totally broke the stereotype of what I thought Miami was.”

At first, she was focused on acquiring a brick and mortar space to open up a restaurant. But that quickly went nowhere – most landlords were making unreasonable demands on prices and terms.

Finally, she stumbled on a nearly barren plot of land on NW 29th Street between North Miami Ave and NW 1st Avenue remarkable only for a BBQ food truck that wasn’t doing much business.

She made an offer to take over the truck and lease the land. Both were accepted, the latter through a temporary use permit.

That was the easy part. The next step was getting the city to allow her to transform the space to her still-evolving vision. Heiman says she “lived” at the City of Miami City Hall for months as she sought the necessary permits to construct the space.

Heiman says she had a “vague thesis” for what she wanted to do with the space, but looking back on it now, her ideas was exactly what Wynwood Yard has become: a launching pad for hungry entrepreneurs with great ideas but not a huge amount of capital.

“I didn’t have single tenant lined up, but I had the sense that Miami was missing something, because I’d experienced it myself,” she said. “I kept meeting really creative, inspired young people who were looking for a place to open, like, how to get their foot in the door.

“And so I just had a vision of creating this space, if I can just create the infrastructure and lay it out, then I can find entrepreneurs who want to be part of it.”

From day one, she says, the business has been self-funded, with the help of friends and family. She did not say whether it was profitable, but that they have been able to “bootstrap” through existing revenues to continue operations.

Year One, Ground Zero

At the Yard’s grand opening in November 2015, it was hard to see that any kind of startup incubation was taking place. There were six businesses, including food trucks (like Della’s) that for many may have seemed indistinguishable from others at the height of the city’s food truck craze. The central bar was the main attraction, and it didn’t even have a covering for rainouts.

“[Bar manager] Ken [Lyon] at one point said, ‘I just want you to know that no one thought it would ever open,’ Heiman said.

Thanks to a combination of factors — the hunger among other entrepreneurs for cheap space, chance meetings with ambitious chefs, and the general momentum of activity in Wynwood – the Yard soon found itself on the pages of Vogue, the New York Post, and Eater.com, not to mention every major publication in Miami.

By that summer, the Yard had grown to 65 employees.

That’s when Zika hit. The Wynwood Yard was located close to ground zero for Miami’s outbreak, and several Yard employees tested positive for the virus. Heiman says the Yard lost hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of revenue, as she had to maintain operational costs without any federal, state, or municipal assistance, and decided to keep every employee on payroll despite the fact that sales disappeared overnight. She voluntarily closed the venue until she and her team were certain that it was safe and comfortable for all employees and customers to return.

Eventually, she sat down with Lyon to decide whether to shut the whole operation down, or invest to reinvent the concept to “take it to the next level.”

Wynwood Yard 2.0

They chose the latter option — Heiman says she had worked more or less without taking a day off since before the Yard first opened, and had too much emotionally invested to see the project fall through.

Luckily, the stigma of Zika did not last, and Heiman says there was so much demand for Yard lots that they went from five to 15 companies seemingly overnight. They also leased another adjacent plot of land, and reconfigured everything to its current form, which now includes a more upscale restaurant called Charcoal, four new food startups, a retail shop run out of a refurbished Airstream, and a new urban garden with another outdoor seating area.

The Yard already has several “graduates” who’ve left the incubator and are launching into brick and mortar stores, including British Garden, MYUMI, and Shnitz and Fritz.

Meanwhile, Susan Duprey’s Radiate Apothecary, which Startup.Miami profiled earlier this month, is now one of the fastest-growing beverage purveyors (specifically, kombucha) in the whole city.

Startup community leaders have noticed.

“The Wynwood Yard has provided the community with another essential third place, a convening point that allows for constant experimentation,” Wifredo Fernandez, Associate Director of StartUP FIU and co-founder of Wynwood’s The LAB coworking space, said in an email. “The Yard has provided us a safe space for ideas and ventures to fail and flourish.”

Lyon calls today’s iteration “Wynwood Yard 2.0.”

“This is a place that’s a big mix, where anyone can come — lowbrow, highbrow, they all like it,” he says. “It’s become a real community.”

Unfortunately, the Yard remains on a temporary use permit. That is one of the reasons why they answered the call from Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola earlier this year about opening a Yard in North Beach.

They accepted.

“[Arriola] came to us with such a big idea, then totally made it happen,” Heiman says. “That man and his team moved mountains.”

The North Beach yard will be a bit bigger than the current space but will aim to have the same community feel, and keep the goals of giving local entrepreneurs, even ones outside of food, a chance to shine.

“It hits every single criteria we’re looking for,” Heiman says.

Heiman says they’re aiming to open as early as this year.

David Lombardi, the owner of the Wynwood land on which the Yard currently sits, loves Heiman’s concept. But the site is zoned for 190 residential units, he said in an email, and that is “ultimately the way I think the project will go.”

But he says it would be difficult to part with the Yard community.

“Our desire is to have them in some form at the base of any project we do build there,” he says.

By Rob Wile
Rob Wile, the curator for Startup.Miami, is a writer and entrepreneur living in Miami Beach. He’s a former staff writer for Fusion and Business Insider. His work has also appeared in Slate, Newsweek, Money Magazine and The New Tropic. He writes a newsletter on tech, business, and the South Florida economy called The Heatwave.