WHITEFIELD — When Stephen and Milva Smith purchased the Country Farm Restaurant building on Mills Road in 2008, they converted part of the building into apartment units and a commercial space available to lease, but they had no idea what to do with the restaurant’s kitchen.

“It was trashed and it was unused,” Milva Smith said.

The couple left the space untouched and unoccupied for quite some time before slowly converting it into a commercial kitchen and business incubator called Food Forge that can be rented by anyone who has a need for a large-scale food operation without the financial or regulatory hassles that come from building one themselves.

“We did some research and looked around, and we saw an interesting space in Washington, D.C., which, on a really large scale, is what we envision for our space,” she said.

The Smiths, who live down the street from the property, said there are regulatory and financial burdens that come with trying to open something like this. Not everyone wants to spend or can afford $200,000 to build one of these kitchens, especially if they just have an idea for a product they’d like to explore.

“I’ve gotten a call recently from a baker who bakes out of her home kitchen, but she wants to be able to approach places like Whole Foods and local markets, but she needs something on a larger scale than what she has at home,” Milva Smith said. “Those are the kinds of people calling us.”

Milva Smith feeds a llama called Dolly as Stephen Smith watches at Food Forge.

Milva Smith feeds a llama called Dolly as Stephen Smith watches at Food Forge. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Her husband said the Whitefield area is the center for a back-to-the-earth, organic movement, and the couple felt there was a need for kitchen space so people could not only harvest food from those local farms, but also have a place to process it locally. They have a commercial food processor license from the state, which allows many foods to be prepared in the kitchen and re-sold.

Stephen Smith, who by day is a trial lawyer for Lipman & Katz in Augusta, credits the Sheepscot General country store down the street from Food Forge for reinvigorating the farming community in the area.

“They opened a new chapter in Whitefield, and we hope that something like this can keep it going,” he said.

Because the couple, who have four children ranging from 3 to 14, already owned the building, there isn’t a lot of pressure to immediately fill the space and make money. Most of the equipment came with the purchase of the restaurant back in 2008, so the Smiths haven’t put too much new money into the venture.

Food has always been a big part of Milva’s life, and growing up in an Italian family, it became a passion. Her parents came to the U.S. from Italy in the 1960s, and her father, Donato Ferrante, was an original co-owner of an Amato’s Italian sandwich shop in Portland, where she spent much of her childhood.

She and her husband owned Giacomo’s Italian Groceria in Bangor, but it was difficult to run the business with a growing family, so they now lease it.

Stephen Smith knew how important food was to his wife from the beginning.

“When I first went to her mother’s house, there was a very beautiful meal on the table, and it was so delicious that I had thirds,” he said. “Then I learned that there were four more courses coming. It’s her vernacular, and I’ve really come to appreciate it.”

The couple hopes the family’s love and passion for food translates into a successful venture that offers not only commercial cooking space, but cooking classes and space for events and other projects.

The building, which also includes two apartments and a hair salon, sits on the front of several acres of farm property the Smiths own.

The kitchen is fully equipped with everything a baker or chef would need, including a commercial-grade stove and hood, multiple sinks, a convection oven, meat slicer, stainless steel work tables and granite presentation tables among many other pieces of equipment. During the tour, the Smiths showed off the kitchen equipment, much of which was covered up by the client currently using the facility, and explained where they hope to see the venture go in the future.

“I want to get to the point where we have a lot of different people making a lot of different products,” Milva Smith said. “We just want to get people in here and tell them what we do.”

The kitchen is available to rent for $125 for a five-hour block that must be used within a 30-day period. The event space, which has enough seating for 30, can be rented for $125 per day, and the business offers rentals of glassware, dishware, utensils and other party and event supplies.