A smorgasbord of offerings at the Yard.
A smorgasbord of offerings at the Yard.
Photo by FujifilmGirl / Courtesy of the Wynwood Yard

The Wynwood Yard Has Transformed Miami

On a busy afternoon in December 2016, a lemon-yellow food truck housing the World Famous House of Mac struggled to keep up with demand at the Wynwood Yard. Lines swirled around the truck. Order times climbed to an hour. At 5 p.m., the truck was nearly sold out of buttermilk fried chicken and pizza mac and cheese.

Crowds continued to surge through the metal gates, but 41-year-old owner Derrick Turton was determined not to surrender.

Clad in a black chef's jacket and a backward baseball cap, Turton headed to Publix, where he and his crew bought nearly 30 pounds of potatoes and 1,000 pounds of poultry. Then three employees used a large cheese melter and a small stove to churn out Parmesan truffle fries, mac and cheese bowls, and fried wings ($5 to $25).

But even that wasn't enough. Around 9 p.m., Turton called it a night.

"The Yard exposed my company to thousands of customers," says Turton, who just last month opened a more permanent restaurant on Washington Avenue. "People who come to me in South Beach almost always say they first tried our food at the Yard."

The Wynwood Yard (56 NW 29th St., Miami, 305-351-0366; thewynwoodyard.com) is Miami's first culinary incubator. Since opening two years ago on half an acre of barren, pebbly land, it has hosted dozens of rotating food concepts. Today it offers a diverse schedule of entertainment, from yoga classes to live music. Guests find fun activities, reasonable prices, and creative food choices.

Later this year, founder and CEO Della Heiman and business partner Ken Lyon plan to open the North Beach Yard opposite the North Shore Open Space Park on 81st Street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Measuring more than an acre, the outdoor hangout will be twice the size of the Wynwood Yard. It will include 50 retail and food vendors, significantly more shade than the original, and a 24-hour diner concept called Morning Glory.

Heiman's Della Test Kitchen and Lyon's Charcoal Bar & Grill, anchors in Wynwood, will be reimagined as more stable structures. And a European-style food market will be stocked with meats, cheeses, breads, flowers, and coffees.

"Wynwood wasn't designed; it just happened," says Lyon, who wears large, thick-framed glasses and looks more like a scholar than a groundbreaking entrepreneur. "But North Beach Yard will be a lot more thought-out."

Heiman, a graduate of Harvard Business School, moved to Miami in 2014 with the intention of opening a fast-casual vegan concept. She spent years cooking and hosting plant-based dinner parties for friends and family and felt ready to transform them into a full-fledged business. But she couldn't find an affordable home.

"Miami is not conducive to young and inexperienced companies getting started," says the 30-year-old Heiman, who has wide blue eyes and an even wider smile. "I definitely didn't have a million dollars to invest, but I was desperate to enter the market."

The Wynwood Yard Has Transformed Miami
Courtesy of the Wynwood Yard

So instead, she set out to create a culinary incubator for herself and other aspiring entrepreneurs. She decided that a committee including herself, Lyon, Yard operations director Brian Goldberg, and culinary director Julie Frans would choose the businesses. Once accepted, they would be able to test and tweak an idea before committing to a space.

In August 2015, she signed a lease for four lots on NW 29th Street between NW First and North Miami Avenues. That November, the Wynwood Yard was born.

"The second I got the keys, I was frantic to open," Heiman says with a grin. "The only problem was... I had never even pulled a permit."

Just a few months later, in August 2016, the Yard was forced to close for two weeks after three of nearly 100 employees tested positive for Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that can cause severe birth defects. Heiman somehow paid all employees during the shutdown.

"It was absolutely terrifying," she says. "We grappled with massive information gaps and great uncertainty."

Though challenging, the experience gave Heiman an unlikely opportunity to rethink the concept. "The situation was so dire that we sat down and thought we either have to close it or totally reimagine it," she says.

Heiman decided to expand to a fifth empty lot next door, adding a microfarm, food concepts, and additional space. Today she has enlivened the area with arts and culture programming, wellness activities, a large bar, food trucks, and more than 30 events and concerts per week. Shakira showed up to perform one night. So did Coldplay's Chris Martin. Overall, the Yard scores more than a dozen local and national musicians each month.

These days, the venue's anchor is Della Test Kitchen (305-351-2961, dellabowls.com). The truck, located to the right of the Yard's entrance, serves plant-based bowls ($11 to $14). Customers can build their own items using ingredients such as chickpeas, sweet potato, marinated kale, and toasted coconut or opt for curated options such as the Forbidden Bowl, blended with black coconut rice, almonds, broccoli, and a ginger-tamari sauce.

Della Test Kitchen is connected to a canopy with picnic tables and dangling lights, creating a semipermanent feeling. "Business school taught me you need to be flexible and pivot," she says. "Creating the Yard forced me to get creative."

Charcoal Bar & Grill (786-646-2998, charcoalmiami.com), the other anchor, offers flame-grilled Florida meats, seafood, and vegetables. Lyon, best known for revitalizing Lincoln Road when he opened the gourmet market Lyon Frères et Compagnie in 1992, used refurbished shipping containers to create Charcoal's indoor/outdoor space.

Inside the open kitchen, find a Spanish hybrid grill/oven called a Josper, which is used to grill everything from sweet corn, peas, and cheeses to octopus, scallops, sausages, steaks, and burgers ($8 to $26). It's straightforward concept that pushes past the limitations that often plague outdoor preparation.

"Charcoal is relaxed but a little more formal than the others," Lyon says. "The thought was that sometimes people may not want to eat from a food truck."

About a year after the Yard opened, Heiman and Lyon were approached by Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola about doing something similar in North Beach. In April 2017, a North Beach citizens group and then the city commission endorsed the idea.

The Wynwood Yard Has Transformed Miami
Photo by FujifilmGirl / Courtesy of the Wynwood Yard

"It'll be unlike anything that Miami has ever seen," Heiman says."Most of it will be constructed out of recycled and retrofitted shipping containers."

When the North Beach Yard opens in late 2018, Della Test Kitchen and Charcoal will anchor the space, along with Morning Glory, an all-day and all-night breakfast and lunch restaurant. "The style will be reminiscent of a diner," Lyon says, "but the food will be fresh and local."

Heiman says she will transform the food truck of Della into a 40-foot shipping container, where customers will be able to create their bowls in an interactive, Chipotle-style manner.

In addition to rotating food trucks, there will be more than a dozen micromarket stalls. They will sell artisanal food products, from sausages and cheeses to fruits and flowers. There will also be a permanent structure used for special events, along with a large organic garden, a hydroponic farm, an industrial composter, and recycling programs.

The North Beach Yard will offer more shade and a better breeze than the Wynwood location. "It'll look a lot more like a park," Lyon says. "There will be coverings from trees and tents as you traverse through the different areas within the space. It'll be a lot more rain-proof too."

In recent days, other entrepreneurs have followed Heiman and Lyon's lead by establishing outdoor food and community hangouts. Among them is the Wharf, a 30,000-square-foot, nautical-themed venue with about 300 seats, which opened in November near Garcia's Fish Market on the Miami River. There's also the Thrifter Market, a collection of vendors who gather every second Saturday at Mana Wynwood.

For Heiman, the idea of semipermanent markets will forever change Miami.

"The Yards exist at the intersection of community, entrepreneurship, diversity, and a belief that we all have a role to play in making our world a better place," she says. "They are meant to serve as a loving, welcominghome away from home."

Indeed, World Famous House of Mac owner Turton, who spent more than a decade as Pitbull's manager before switching to cooking, plans to keep his food truck open at the Yard despite recently debuting a location in South Beach. And he hopes to join the North Beach Yard. "Della is a mad scientist," Turton says. "She took an empty lot and transformed it into this magical place where people can come and experience something totally different. That's genius."

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