Neil Spillane, wearing one of his many hats at the Fork Food Lab in Portland, took hold of one handle on an 80-quart mixing bowl – filled with enough chocolate chip whoopie pie batter to make 500 whoopie pies – and helped Dennis Wiggins lug it up a flight of stairs.

Wiggins is married to Marcia Wiggins, owner of Cape Whoopies, one of the original members of the 6,000-square-foot food business incubator that opened last year.

There’s no lift between floors in the old building on Parris Street – not yet, anyway – so when one of the food entrepreneurs needs a hand, Spillane offers it. He’s part manager, part business adviser, part psychologist, part janitor, part shoulder to lean on.

Fork Food Lab, with its shared commercial kitchen facilities and tasting room, was co-founded by Spillane and Eric Holstein and will be celebrating its one-year Forkiversary with a big party Thursday night.

In the beginning, 10 eager food entrepreneurs signed up to share the space, which is outfitted with almost every piece of shiny kitchen equipment a cook or baker might covet. By winter, that number had doubled, Spillane said, “and right now we’re at 37 companies.”

Members range from Bill Linnell, a newcomer who wants to run a lobster roll food truck, to Kelly Towles, a salsa maker who started in the basement of her home and now places salsa in stores from Maine to Pennsylvania and at restaurants and hotels all over Maine and New Hampshire. (Spillane says Towles’ Plucked Fresh Salsa, along with Cape Whoopies, are “by far growing the fastest, and they’re the largest companies in the incubator right now.”)

While Towles was packaging salsa one day last week, Linnell was sitting quietly in a corner picking lobster meat, lobster splatter covering his gloved hands and clothes. He had never cooked such a large batch of lobsters before – 35 of them, enough for 24 lobster rolls made with Linnell’s secret sauce – and the cooking took longer than he expected. That meant he probably would not be able to hit Commercial Street that day with the food truck he built himself that looks like a little tugboat. (He says people see him driving down the street and yell out, “That’s adorable!”)

Bill Linnell built his own food cart to sell his Capt. Bill’s lobster rolls in Portland. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“This is my first day” in the lab, Linnell said, laughing, “and it’s not going very well.”

A year after the food lab opened, Spillane has developed an eye for who will make it, and who will remain in hobby business limbo. He quizzes entrepreneurs in initial meetings to see how prepared they are: Do they have a business plan? Have they raised enough capital to keep them going for six months to a year? Have they chosen a distinctive name for their business, and is it trademark-able? Have they already reserved their handles for social media?

“The people who are looking to grow quickly and are really serious, they’ve thought that stuff through,” Spillane said.

One thing he cannot help them with: The mental mojo they need for the task ahead.

“Starting a food business is not unlike starting any small business in that it takes a lot of dedication and just perseverance,” Spillane said.

The same could be said for starting a business like Fork Food Lab, which has undergone changes and adjustments of its own over the past 12 months – the largest being its merger in June with Foodworks, a Brooklyn-based food incubator.

There have been a few small course corrections as well. Spillane discovered, for example, that while the lab’s big equipment library was well loved and widely used, it wasn’t quite big enough. He did not expect such a high demand for the 30-quart and 80-quart mixers the clients call Sir Mix-a-lot.

“We didn’t think we would get that many bakers,” he said. So, six months after opening, he increased the capacity of the mixers by buying more bowls for them.

He plans to add a lift to the old building that will move products and equipment, such as that big batch of whoopie pie batter, from one floor to another without risking injury or strain.

Spillane has also seen a slight shift in the type of clients who are signing up. More established restaurants are using the lab for extra food prep space, he said, and “I think we’ll see more of that.” Duckfat used Fork Food Lab to prepare the food it served this summer at Oxbow Brewing Co., and Tomaso’s Canteen made sausages there. Portland Pulp, a local smoothie bar, signed on just last week so it can offer more salads and outsource some storage.

Spillane often serves as a matchmaker for Fork Food Lab clients, introducing them to each other so they can share ideas and solutions to problems most entrepreneurs will run up against eventually: what kind of packaging should I use? Are there ingredients we can share? Can my coffee go into your almond milk to make a new product for both of us? (Parlor Ice Cream Co. and Urban Sugar Donuts, for example, will be joining forces to make a doughnut ice cream sundae for the anniversary celebration Thursday.)

Spillane likes to show people how they can save money by working together. All the bakers order ingredients together, for example, to bring their costs down.

“You’re not going to be making tons of profit at this stage of the game,” he said. “Whatever you’re making you’re putting back into the business.”

Neil Spillane, a co-founder of Fork Food Lab in Portland, says he often serves as a matchmaker for lab clients who might be able to order ingredients together or otherwise collaborate. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Spillane says one lesson he’s learned over the past year is that this kind of collaboration cannot be forced. So he organizes monthly get-togethers in the lab’s tasting room, sometimes with a speaker, so members can mingle. He also invited them all on a booze cruise over the summer. The key, he says, is not just getting to know each other, but learning to trust each other.

“That’s the best way, when they become friends and they kind of enjoy doing it,” Spillane said. “It doesn’t feel like work.”

Spillane says he can tell when an entrepreneur is about to go through a big growth spurt. Usually, he says, it’s when they quit their full-time job to devote themselves to their new business. “That’s when you know they’re serious, and that’s when they start to grow,” he said.

That’s what happened to Sky Cohen of Windham, owner of Sky’s Café, who makes prepared meals for busy people who are interested in health and nutrition, or follow special diets such as the paleo or ketogenic diets. A Crossfit coach herself, Cohen often delivers her food to clients at local gyms.

Cohen has doubled her business since January, and says she has gone through another growth spurt since quitting her job as an accountant a month ago.

“This past week was my biggest sales so far,” she said.

Between her (former) full-time job as an accountant and her side business, Cohen had been working 70 hours a week – a tough schedule when you have children – and wasn’t getting a lot of sleep. Now if her kids need her during the day she can be there for them, and she can go to the lab at 3 a.m. to cook if she really has to – it’s open 24 hours a day.

“It seemed like I was holding myself from growing more,” she said. “I just had to take the risk and leave. I know it’s a big risk I’m taking right now at 38, but I don’t want to wake up at 65 and say, ‘I wish I would have taken that risk at 38.’ ”

Michael Hillard, an economist who is director of the new Food Studies Program at the University of Southern Maine, says the idea of Fork Food Lab might not have worked 10 years ago, but “right now we have kind of a hot house environment when it comes to food innovation.”

Economic historians, he locations and now even one in Chicago. The new projects are one result of the merger with Foodworks.

Chris Hall, director of regional initiatives at the Greater Portland Council of Governments, said shared community kitchens are spreading nationwide because they are “a tested and effective way to create new businesses and new jobs, and that’s why the federal government funds them.”

Spillane and Holstein raised money for their lab through federal and local grants, private investors and a Kickstarter campaign, but they credit a $100,000 USDA Local Food Promotion Program Grant with providing them the seed money they needed to get investors’ attention.

Hall said the federal designation that makes Portland a food manufacturing hub has helped Fork Food Lab foster the city’s entrepreneurial culture by “giving people the space and the network that they need to explore their ideas and create new opportunities.”

“Food and beverage manufacturing is not like attracting a major automobile manufacturer,” he said. “You have to build it from the ground up.”

The new northeastern network of incubators being launched by Foodworks will be connected online so members can talk with each other, and they’ll be able to pool resources, such as specialty equipment that would be too expensive to install everywhere. White Cap Coffee, a member of Fork Food Lab that makes nitro-brewed coffee, plans to use a bottling line in Providence.

And Foodworks has just started its own distribution system that Spillane says will eventually include a Brooklyn-to-Portland corridor. Brooklyn products will be sold on Portland shelves and vice versa, “taking over shelf space and market share from the big guys like Nabisco and Kraft.”

Spillane says that, here in Portland, they are searching for a “stage two” facility where companies that outgrow Fork Food Lab but aren’t yet ready to be independent can have their own stand-alone kitchen space with room for more employees. Fork Food Lab would still manage the facilities, taking care of all the cleaning, deliveries and so on.

Spillane says he’s also in talks with developers from other Maine towns, including Bangor, who are interested in opening incubators of their own.

“It’s an economic engine,” he said, “and they realize that.”