As Christina Morrison busily went about making sweet potato hush puppies and black bean-and-corn cakes in the Fork Food Lab in Portland last week, she couldn’t believe her luck.

As a young cook, she watched a lot of food TV and used to drool over the celebrity chefs’ well-stocked kitchens. Now, working as director of operations for her father’s catering business in their new space at Fork Food Lab, that old feeling has come back.

“You walk in here, every day you feel like you’re on a movie set,” said Morrison, whose family owns Have Chef Will Travel, a catering company based in South Portland. “It’s shiny. It’s beautiful. There’s every piece of equipment you could want.”

On Sept. 27, the 6,000-square foot Fork Food Lab will celebrate its grand opening in West Bayside. But its first clients are already hard at work in the privately owned commercial kitchen incubator and tasting room. The $1.5 million food lab is the creation of Neil Spillane and Eric Holstein, two young entrepreneurs who hope their project will help propel both Maine’s food economy and the dreams of local entrepreneurs who want to scale up their businesses and see their pies, sauces, sports drinks and puddings on every table.

MEMBERSHIP HAS ITS PRIVILEGES

The lab’s clients – there is space for 45 food businesses – pay a monthly membership fee ($500 part time, or $800 full time) for access to the lab’s main kitchen, its “equipment library,” and an adjacent tasting room, where the public will be able to sample their products and provide feedback. Members will also get expert help with marketing, legal questions and advice and regulatory hurdles.

Although Maine has other shared commercial kitchens, food entrepreneurs here say they have had a tough time finding one that is affordable and fits their needs.

Morrison and her chef father, Brad Morrison, had been working out of a church kitchen, but they were “bursting at the seams,” she said, and in desperate need of more cool storage. She searched for a year for a larger commercial kitchen with the equipment they needed before she heard about Fork.

Fork Food Lab offers a number of amenities that aren’t found at traditional commercial kitchens. It will be open 24-7. It will be staffed from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., and it will have card readers so members can come and go as they please. Got a sudden inspiration for a new cookie at 2 a.m.? No problem.

The facility also has a loading dock. The staff will receive shipments of ingredients and put them in storage so the members don’t have to worry about being on site when food they’ve ordered has arrived. Sourcing ingredients with other members should help keep costs down.

No other commercial kitchen in Maine offers the flexibility and state-of-the-art equipment that Fork Food Lab does, according to Shelley Doak, executive director at the Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association.

“There are other makeshift-type facilities that have come and gone over the years, but this is so unique right from the get-go,” Doak said. “This gives you a first step at scaling up without a huge investment because you don’t have to sign a huge lease for six months or a year.”

Christina Morrison of Have Chef Will Travel catering company works in the shiny new kitchen.

Christina Morrison of Have Chef Will Travel catering company works in the shiny new kitchen. Photo by Madison Gouzie/Fork Food Lab Photo by Madison Gouzie/Fork Food Lab

NATIONAL TREND

Although such kitchen facilities are rare in northern New England, they are bubbling up all over the national landscape.

In 2013, a group of business consultants produced an industry snapshot of kitchen incubators in the United States. That study, updated this year by American Communities Trust, a community development organization, showed that between August 2013 and March 2016, the number of kitchen incubators in the United States grew to more than 200, an increase of more than 50 percent. Of the 61 facilities surveyed in the study, 82 percent reported increased revenue over the past three years, and 84 percent are breaking even or making money.

The report says that while kitchen incubators were once considered “a post-recession fad” that would fade away as the economy recovered, in fact the kitchens are becoming “larger and more sophisticated.”

Before they teamed up to launch Fork Food Lab, Spillane was the CEO of Urban Farm Fermentory, where he managed the shared kitchen used by businesses such as Bomb Diggity Bakery and Maine Pie Line, and Holstein was the co-owner of the The Marshmallow Cart.

Each had experienced firsthand the struggles involved in launching a food business.

They raised money for Fork Food Lab through federal and local grants, private investors and a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $34,000. The partners credit a $100,000 USDA Local Food Promotion Program Grant with providing them the seed money they needed to get investors’ attention.

IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME

Anyone can sign up to use Fork’s facilities – food truck operators, restaurant cooks, caterers. The Portland restaurant Bruno’s has signed on to make its pastas and sauces in the space for retail sale. But Holstein says most of the current members are home cooks who hope to begin or scale up commercial production of products. “They were getting large orders and they needed something immediately,” Holstein said.

A fledgling company called Gert and Lil’s searched four years for just the right kitchen space before joining Fork Food Lab. The owner will be making gluten- and dairy-free organic puddings that can be eaten frozen. (Look for chocolate to be the first flavor.)

Myranda McGowan of Fayette has been making almond milk for herself and her family for about two years and now hopes to launch an almond milk business, The Whole Almond.

Her milk contains just two ingredients: sprouted organic almonds and water. Eventually, McGowan wants to branch into flavors – chai-flavored almond milk for fall, blueberry or strawberry for summer.

All will be vetted by the public at Fork. The tasting room, she says, is “the number one reason I chose the Fork Food Lab.”

Another draw for McGowan and others is the idea of collaborating with fellow food producers. McGowan’s almond milk, for example, is already being considered as an ingredient in a new gelato flavor by Gelato Fiasco.

Gelato Fiasco has a space next to the downstairs tasting room where its employees will be testing new flavors and equipment, holding gelato-making classes and developing new products like gelato ice cream sandwiches and cakes.

Joshua Davis, co-founder and CEO of Gelato Fiasco, said it’s the company’s philosophy to deepen its relationship with customers, and attract new customers, through experiential and experimental endeavors. Fork Food Lab fits right into that, he said.

“We’re kind of thinking of it as our Epcot to our Magic Kingdom,” Davis said.

Last Thursday, the company was testing a new freezer/display case and experimenting with new flavors and different natural emulsifiers and stabilizers.

“We’re working on a goat milk flavor using a local farm,” Gelato Fiasco’s director of perfection (that’s really her title) Lila Wilmerding said, “and an almond milk-based, dairy-free flavor using the almond milk that’s made upstairs.”

Co-owners of Fork Food Lab, from left, Eric Holstein and Neil Spillane stand in their new kitchen incubator in Portland's West Bayside.

Co-owners of Fork Food Lab, from left, Eric Holstein and Neil Spillane stand in their new kitchen incubator in Portland’s West Bayside. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

WELL-EQUIPPED

Upstairs is a large kitchen filled with convection ovens, refrigerators, bowls, pans, whisks of every size and much more. Everything you see, Spillane says on a tour of the space, is owned by the lab, and its use comes with membership.

Spillane said he came to realize the high cost of equipment when he worked at Urban Farm Fermentory.

“Even a little 30-quart mixer like that,” he said, pointing to a mixer, “you’re talking about $4,000, which is not insignificant for a startup. That’s a decent chunk of change.”

Spillane said he and Holstein put together the kitchen with the help of a consultant and equipment lists from other culinary incubators.

One of their last purchases was a top-of-the-line oven that knows when a piece of chicken is done and automatically adjusts the temperature so it doesn’t overcook.

“It’s hooked up to water so you can actually steam vegetables in it, but it can also dehydrate and suck humidity out of the oven, so you can make jerky,” Spillane said. “It’s fully programmable.”

For Morrison, who was using the shiny new equipment to prepare her hush puppies and black bean-and-corn cakes, the fancy oven was just icing on the cake. The Fork kitchen is now her happy place.

“I didn’t know I was dreaming of this,” she said. “I didn’t know it was possible.”


Correction: In a previous version of this story, a photo of Christina Morrison of Have Chef Will Travel was credited to the wrong photographer. The photo was taken by Madison Gouzie of Fork Food Lab.