Tony Albelo's Quirky Sense of Humor Is Transforming Wynwood

Tony Albelo
Tony Albelo Photo by Michael Campina
click to enlarge Tony Albelo - PHOTO BY MICHAEL CAMPINA
Tony Albelo
Photo by Michael Campina

It was one day before April Fool's, but this was no prank. Around 7 p.m. March 31, 2012, the Miami Entertainment Complex on NW 14th Street was filled with smoke. Chefs from about 30 restaurants had fired up grills inside the giant warehouse for a burger event called the Grind. Hundreds of people had paid $75 each to enjoy food and music from a cover band. Some, drinks in hand, were dancing on a makeshift spot in one corner of the building.

But the place was filled with smoke. It billowed out of the building. People coughed. Everything was hazy.

It was like a dance club in purgatory.

By around 8 p.m., Miami Fire Rescue had arrived, and a half-hour later, the call was made to shut down the grills for 15 minutes. They were never fired back up. Some partygoers demanded their money back. Others continued to drink beer and shimmy in the carnivorous fog. Still others filed outside to the nearby train tracks for a breath of fresh air.

Tony Albelo, who had set up the event, was devastated. He had spent the better part of a year preparing for what he thought would be the ultimate Miami party. The next day, he issued an apology, saying the problem was with the main air-conditioning unit. Vendors were angry, and ticketholders were furious. "They crucified me," says the 51-year-old Miami native known for his graying goatee and mischievous smile. "I wound up selling my boat to pay off the vendors. I took my licking and paid the price for a valuable lesson."

That disaster might have ended Albelo's career. But it didn't. Instead, a year later, he helped start the event management company Swarm, which today runs Grovetoberfest, Sprung, and Grillin' and Chillin'. Inc. magazine recently named Swarm one of the nation's fastest-growing companies, with revenues that have ballooned from $300,000 in 2014 to $11.3 million in 2017. This week, Albelo will open Gro, an outdoor space on NW Second Avenue in Wynwood, where some people call him the unofficial mayor.

Albelo is a complicated character with an off-kilter sense of humor. Once, he was nearly thrown out of the Bahamas because of an offhand joke. Another time, he made a crack that riled Miami's beer community. He's built his success on a formula of moving ahead three steps and then back one.

"Sure, his first event, the Grind, was a catastrophe, but he just goes forward," says Nedal Ahmad, cofounder of the local restaurant chain Pincho and a longtime friend. "Tony embodies the American dream."

Albelo's parents, Anna and Amado, fled Cuba in the 1950s and settled in California, where they had four kids. Tony was the second of three children — two boys and one girl — who were born in Los Angeles. Amado, a hotel worker, moved his young family to Miami after hearing about more opportunities and better weather here. Tony was so young at the time, about 4 years old, that he considers himself a Miami native. "Most people would probably be shocked I was born in California," he says.

click to enlarge Albelo's Swarm has presented events that include performing bartenders and celebrities such as Pitbull and 50 Cent. - PHOTO BY JULIA ROSE VIA SWARM EVENT AGENCY
Albelo's Swarm has presented events that include performing bartenders and celebrities such as Pitbull and 50 Cent.
Photo by Julia Rose via Swarm Event Agency

The marketing executive describes growing up as a "typical student" who didn't get into trouble or fool around much. "I never smoked," he says. "I didn't have a drink until after I graduated high school." Albelo did have a couple of things going for him: height and personality. Standing over six feet tall, he excelled in football and wrestling, plus he scored well on the SAT. "I checked a lot of boxes," he says. "I'm Cuban, so I spoke Spanish. I played sports, so I got along with those guys. And I liked to joke around."

Public relations company owner Dina Allende recalls going to school with Albelo. "He was always a mover and shaker, even back then."

Though colleges such as Tulane and Clemson came calling, Albelo made a decision he now calls the one regret of his life. To stay close to his family in South Florida, he enrolled in Miami Dade College. "My parents didn't know any better," he says. "They came from another country, and they didn't go to college." His sister, Anna Margarita, was the only sibling to go away to school; she attended Florida State University and went on to a successful filmmaking career.

In college, Albelo was more interested in work than study. Around 1990, while still in school, he formed a small company that installed computer networks. It soon consumed most of his time. He kept that business going until 2001, when he sold it and started a small advertising and marketing firm called Ocean Promotions.

"I said, 'I'll run the show from soup to nuts: advertising to planning.' "

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Albelo's first taste of event planning came when a client asked for marketing help with a motorcycle show. He soon learned the organizers didn't have basics such as a floor plan. So he made them a deal. "I said, 'I'll run the show from soup to nuts: advertising to planning.'" He hopped on a plane to New York to observe a motorcycle show and then visited similar events in Indianapolis, Daytona, and Atlanta. On June 14, 2002, the local show opened at the Coconut Grove Convention Center with an attendance of 22,000 people over two days.

Albelo was hooked. "I fell in love with planning events."

That same year, he decided to put on a small fishing tournament in Coconut Grove. He called it the Grove Slam. The first year, he made no money, but the avid boaters had fun and his advertising company covered the bills.

The following year, some boat manufacturers recognized him at the Miami International Boat Show and asked if he planned to repeat the tournament. "I hadn't thought about doing it again, but something connected in my head that I could make money from sponsorships." That year, the Grove Slam netted Albelo about $25,000, along with some marine electronics and something even sweeter: a new boat at cost. "I bought a small townhouse in Coconut Grove, and I took my golf cart to Scotty's Landing, where my boat was at the marina. I was living the life."

But soon, Albelo tried new ventures, with mixed results. In 2005, he attempted to set a world record at an event called Miami Going Green at Bayfront Park for the longest parade of alternative-powered vehicles. Only about 80 showed up, a few hundred short of the record.

Meanwhile, the fishing tournament business expanded from Miami to the Bahamas. Large companies such as Yamaha came calling. Soon, Albelo had jumped from one to a dozen tournaments per year. But his sense of humor put his business in jeopardy when he sent out an email blast for his Bahamas Challenge fishing tournament. Contestants wouldn't have to pay the country's $300 immigration and customs fee, he wrote, because he had "provocative photos of some high-ranking Bahamian officials."

Bahamian Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe didn't get the joke. After a government contact gave him a dressing-down, Albelo says he sent out an apology email that stated, "It takes a rare person to insult an entire country, and I am that person."

In 2009, South Florida's real-estate bubble burst and the hobby boating industry became collateral damage. "Guys that had $300,000 boats were getting out," Albelo says. As sponsorships ran dry, he found something with wider appeal: beer.

"This was in October 2010. There weren't any breweries in Miami, and I decided to put on a beer festival after going to one in Jupiter," he recalls. The first Grovetoberfest, held in Peacock Park in 2011, featured 200 brews. "Everyone had fun, but more importantly, attendees didn't care about the price of gas or real estate," Albelo says. "I decided I would rather do more events that catered to a broader range of people."

The roster of events grew, but then came the smoky fiasco at 2012's burger party, the Grind. Ahmad of Pincho recalls arriving at the event early to start cooking and noticing the smoke even before most of the burgers hit the grill. "So much went wrong I remember thinking, God, what a mess," Ahmad says.

click to enlarge Albelo's Swarm has presented events that include performing bartenders and celebrities such as Pitbull and 50 Cent. - PHOTO BY JULIA ROSE VIA SWARM EVENT AGENCY
Albelo's Swarm has presented events that include performing bartenders and celebrities such as Pitbull and 50 Cent.
Photo by Julia Rose via Swarm Event Agency

In 2013, to promote the Coconut Grove Seafood Festival, Albelo asked chef Ralph Pagano to deliver the first stone crabs of the season to Peacock Park by helicopter. The following year, Albelo hired skydivers to jump from a small plane and deliver the claws. Allende, of Clique Public Relations, who worked on Albelo's events for about a decade, took the stunts with a grain of salt. "What does skydiving have to do with a fishing boat? Nothing. But it's the celebration for Tony. It was crazy and fun, and that's what he's about."

Around that time, Albelo formed Swarm with partners Javi Zayas and Harry Davidson. He traded in his Coconut Grove office for space at NW 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue owned by developer Moishe Mana. "I came to Wynwood and I fell in love with it," Albelo says. We came up with a hashtag — #WynwoodLife — and it caught on. People asked if it was an event. So we made it one." The first Wynwood Life festival combined art, fashion, food, and music. It drew about 9,000 people over three days. Since then, it's grown annually, with about 25,000 attendees last year.

Albelo and Swarm also took over managing the monthly food truck roundup during Wynwood Art Walk at the Mana-owned lot at NW Second Avenue and 22nd Street in 2013. The roundup had been happening for years, but it was a mess, Albelo says. "There wasn't a lot of infrastructure, and there was a lot of bickering between trucks. It was like the Wild West." Swarm agreed to take over management for free. They brought in 50 trash cans and set up a small stage with a DJ. Slowly, the food truck roundup evolved from monthly to weekly and then to several times a week. In 2014, it morphed into what is now the Wynwood Marketplace.

But Albelo — being Albelo — couldn't stay out of trouble for long. In October 2015, two years after the Black Lives Matter movement began in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Albelo organized a beer-tasting called "Dark Beers Matter." Dozens of people took to social media to cite the name's bad taste and call it "racist" and a "fuckup," Albello recalls. Then Wynwood Brewing Company pulled out. Eventually, he cancelled the event. "I used to theme the tastings — one was 'come over to the dark side.' It turned ugly real fast. The 'Dark Beers Matter' didn't sink in until it was explained to me."

"It's the celebration for Tony. It's crazy and fun, and that's what he's about."

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Over time, Albelo says, his friend and PR rep Allende has helped him become more aware of his words. About five years ago, she heard him say "retard" in a conversation with friends. She quickly explained that her brother Eric had Down syndrome and that words can hurt. Albelo says he hadn't understood the implications of using certain words until Allende pointed them out. "I should have known," he says. "I'm a Hispanic man who was fat at times in my life. Being a minority, I should have known better."

Says Allende: "He's so creative, but sometimes I would have to act as the voice of reason and say, 'Tony, how could you?'" Indeed, she explains, he has a heart and a conscience. When Eric passed away last year, Albelo hosted a life celebration at the Wynwood Marketplace, complete with an open bar and DJ, for Allende. "Tony reached out to me and said, 'Dina, everything's on me. You have a blank check,'" she recalls. "I literally didn't have to worry about anything."

He takes a similar approach at home with his 44-year-old wife, Marilyn, whom he met in a Coconut Grove bar about a dozen years ago. The couple has 9-year-old twins, Alyssa and Arianna. "One year, the girls wanted a Wizard of Oz theme for Halloween," Marilyn says, "and there was Tony putting silver paint all over his face to become the Tin Man. When they were younger, he'd wear tutus and nail polish because they asked."

Adds Albelo: "My house is filled with women: my wife, my daughters — even the dog. My mother and mother-in-law live close. I'll do anything for them."

These days, Swarm continues to grow. The company recently purchased an 18,000-square-foot warehouse in Allapattah for about $2 million. "I never thought I would buy a two-million-dollar anything," Albello says.

click to enlarge Albelo's Swarm has presented events that include performing bartenders and celebrities such as Pitbull and 50 Cent. - PHOTO BY JULIA ROSE VIA SWARM EVENT AGENCY
Albelo's Swarm has presented events that include performing bartenders and celebrities such as Pitbull and 50 Cent.
Photo by Julia Rose via Swarm Event Agency

On a recent Sunday afternoon at the Wynwood Marketplace, the deck area is filled with families. A few 7-year-olds dance while their parents dine on the weekly brunch special: $4 bowls of steaming paella. Nearby, couples browse goods from the two dozen or so vendors selling vintage concert T-shirts and earrings depicting Frida Kahlo as a saint, while others peruse food trucks that offer everything from macaroni and cheese to milkshakes.

Since its inception in 2014, the Wynwood Marketplace has grown from a parking lot that hosted food trucks on the weekends to a fully formed entertainment venue. When rain puddled after summer thunderstorms, Albelo's team installed wood decking to keep guests dry. Giving a new name to the bar area — the Deck — Swarm added a stage for live music, a DJ booth, and a craft and vintage market.

Francisco Rodriguez, the buff, tattooed owner of the China Box food truck, furrows his brow over piercing green eyes as he tries to be heard over the DJ spinning "Gasolina." "The Marketplace has been really good to me. The tour buses let out groups right in front of the area. For many, this is their first encounter with Wynwood." Now that the Wynwood Yard — which drew thousands to an outdoor gathering space nearby — has closed, the Marketplace has become the neighborhood's entertainment hub, with music, food trucks, bars, and local art vendors. A robust event calendar includes everything from dog-friendly brunches to two-buck craft beer on Fridays.

" I think we make a positive impact on the people who work here and play here."

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This Sunday, June 2, Swarm will officially open Gro, a sustainable space offering live music, several bars, food trucks, and Wynwood's first dog park. It will all happen under a giant glowing arch designed to provide shade from Miami's brutal sun.

Gro Wynwood will feature small wooden pyramids made from reclaimed wood that hold the herbs used in the cocktails. Recycled water will keep the gardens moist. Shipping containers will be transformed into bars, and five permanent food trucks that serve organic or sustainable food will gather nearby. Scheduled to remain open through February 2020, the pop-up will offer space for free or low-cost community events and also live music — which Albelo says will range from opera to hip-hop — on weekends.

click to enlarge Albelo with his wife Marilyn and their twins. - COURTESY OF TONY ALBELO
Albelo with his wife Marilyn and their twins.
Courtesy of Tony Albelo

With the Wynwood Marketplace and Gro Wynwood, Albelo has essentially anchored the north and south gateways to Miami's arts district. "Malls have figured this strategy out for years: Put Bloomingdale's and Macy's at the entrances to bring in the foot traffic. A rising tide raises all ships."

Albelo is well aware, though, that Gro and the Marketplace are temporary structures in a neighborhood that's quickly changing. "People are developing Wynwood, and some of that is good. We will get better infrastructure, better lighting, but there has to be a balance. We can't just have new buildings up and down Second Avenue. I think we're doing our part to attract visitors to the area. I think we make a positive impact on the people who work here and play here."

In the upcoming weeks and months, the two Wynwood spots will anchor a series of community-building parties and celebrations. June 21 through 23, Swarm will host the first-ever Wynwood Pride at the Marketplace. The event will include drag shows, a family area, live music, film screenings, and a community village offering HIV testing. Three local LGBTQ+ organizations will be beneficiaries of the festival's proceeds. Then, in early February, when the Super Bowl comes to Miami, an event called Super Fan Fest will take over the Wynwood Marketplace. Around the same time, a Latin music event will be held at the nearby RC Cola Plant.

If those go well, Albelo plans to use them as blueprints for similar parties in Tampa and Los Angeles during the Super Bowl in those cities.

The one thing not likely to be tackled again? An indoor grilling fest — even though Pincho's Ahmad says the Grind has reached legendary status in Miami's culinary community. "So many things went wrong that night, but it's weird that when people are gathered and burgers and drinks are involved, they'll find a way to have a good time."

Ahmad says Albelo's rise to the top couldn't have been as sweet without the missteps. "There's a certain amount of grace that comes when you own up to your failures. I have an MBA in failure, so I respect that."

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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.
Contact: Laine Doss