Fork Food Lab, the shared commercial kitchen that has helped launch many successful food businesses in South Maine, is under contract to purchase a larger property in South Portland to accommodate its growing membership and add a line of food processing and packaging to better support its members as their businesses grow.

After looking for a new home for two years, then almost shutting down during the pandemic, the food business incubator has again a waiting list for membership – in large part because of immigrant and out-of-town entrepreneurs. ‘State who moved here.

A place where entrepreneurs pursue their dreams of doing everything from hot sauce and popsicles to Latin empanadas and Chinese dumplings, Fork Food Lab is currently based in Portland, in a 5,200 square foot rented two-story building in 72, rue Parris which does not have an elevator or a parking lot. Bill Seretta, the executive director, said the new location at 95-97 Darling Ave. near the Maine Mall in South Portland includes two buildings with a total area of ​​42,000 square feet, about eight times the Portland building. One of the buildings is let until 2023 by Wex, which previously rented the other building.

Seretta warned that the new location is not yet a done deal. While the space is under contract, the lab still has to do due diligence, organize funding, and find contractors, which can be a challenge during the pandemic. He hopes to close the property within the next two months and start construction, “but there is so much possibility that things will go wrong.”

Fork Food Lab is under contract to purchase 95-97 Darling Ave. in South Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Personal photographer

If the deal goes through, Fork Food Lab would occupy approximately 18,000 to 25,000 square feet of the property, with plenty of space to resell for other food producers who might want to set up shop there, creating a sort of “hub.” food, ”Seretta said. He said he had discussed the idea with several companies, but declined to name them.

Founded in 2016, Fork Food Lab has been a starting point for many companies that have enjoyed great success in their own spaces, including Cape Whoopies, Parlor Ice Cream Co., Plucked Fresh Salsa, Mill Cove Baking Co., and Falafel Mafia. , whose owners operate a food truck and the Nura restaurant.

Fork Food Lab nearly shut down at the start of the pandemic after losing nearly half of its members, but rebounded in 2021, doubling its membership in just four months. “Now we’re at 57 (members) and we have a waiting list,” Seretta said. “We have overcapacity and we can’t take it anymore unless some people want to come to work at midnight. “

NEW ARRIVALS FUEL GROWTH

The newer members come from one of the two groups, Seretta said. The number of immigrant members has doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent, and the remainder is made up of people from other parts of the country, such as Boston and New York, who settle in Maine.

Zoe Borenstein, a private chef, carries a tray of chocolate chip cookies on a baking rack while working at the Fork Food Lab in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Personal photographer

Hannah Lake White, owner of Lake & Co., a catering company that works out of Fork Food Lab, said she was excited about the potential move because “growing up in a bigger space I think it’s fine. empower people to be more efficient with their businesses.

On Tuesday, Mike Geary of Lake & Co. makes ginger orange jam in the kitchen at the Fork Food Lab in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Personal photographer

Before COVID hit, White’s business was seasonal, dealing with weddings and other events primarily in warm weather. In the spring of 2020, when all of those events were called off, she turned to making take-out meals at the Fork Food Lab so that she could feed the quarantined hungry people in their homes. She’s been busy all summer. Then, starting on Thanksgiving last year and throughout the winter, Lake & Co.’s take out business really took off. It hired its first full-time employees and grew into a year-round business, making money for months that had previously contributed nothing to its bottom line.

Last spring, she started looking for her own space, but finally decided to upgrade her membership to Fork Food Lab, where she doesn’t have to worry about additional costs like cleaning range hoods and cooking utensils. grease traps. “I feel like I would never have widened my customer network as large as I did without their help,” White said.

White said if things went as planned with the South Portland space, members would have their own “pod” where they could store all of their own gear and lock their own doors.

“It would be your own kitchen space with your own equipment and the things you need for what you do,” she said. “It’s really exciting because although I can’t wait to have my own brick and mortar someday, I absolutely loved being a part of a community kitchen. I have learned so much from the other members. It is a wonderful place to exchange ideas with other entrepreneurs.

NEW INGREDIENTS

Seretta said the relocated Fork Food Lab will also include a food processing and packaging space to help members grow their businesses. The Fork Food Lab operates by renting space and equipment to its members, and in turn, the lab supports them with services like testing and marketing, putting their food in the stomachs of potential customers.

Mike Geary of Lake & Co., a catering company, makes ginger orange jam in the kitchen at the Fork Food Lab in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Personal photographer

“Our weakness has been that as they get older we don’t have the capacity to take this,” Seretta said.

Scaling up processing and packaging is, he said, “a huge deal, and for the most part you do it from your stovetop, or you do it in huge manufacturing facilities, and there is not much in between “.

Seretta compares the production line he envisions to the advent of desktop publishing. He calls it “tabletop processing and wrapping” because the design will make it more accessible to more people.

A relocated Fork Food Lab would also benefit the South Portland community by bringing many potential new businesses to the area, said Bill Mann, the city’s director of economic development.

Mann believes the project could open up part-time internship opportunities for high school students, as well as provide a “great positive synergy” between Fork Food Lab and Southern Maine Community College Culinary School.

“Anytime there is an investment in our community that brings jobs, creativity and entrepreneurship, we think it’s a good thing,” he said.

This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. on Wednesday to clarify the timing of Wex’s leases on South Portland buildings.


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