The Fork Food Lab in West Bayside will close at the end of September. Its parent company said the Portland location was no longer viable. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The parent company of the Fork Food Lab in Portland notified its members this week that it will close at the end of September, only two years after it opened.

“Over the remaining weeks our team’s primary goal will be to help minimize any disruptions so your business can continue to thrive,” read an email from Zach Ware, CEO of Pilotworks, the company that has operated Fork Food Lab. “Until the kitchen’s closing day, you can continue to use your membership as you do today and we will continue to deliver the member experience and services you expect.”

The lab opened in Portland’s West Bayside neighborhood in 2016 to give space to as many as 45 entrepreneurs hoping to create their own food-related products. It wasn’t clear Tuesday how many members would be affected.

Audrey Farber loads loaves of challahs onto a cooling rack at Fork Food Lab in Portland last summer. The incubator’s parent company told members this week it will be closing its doors. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The 6,000-square-foot commercial kitchen offered shared amenities, for a monthly membership fee, that most start-up food companies wouldn’t have access to, including brand new equipment, round-the-clock hours, loading docks and storage units on site.

The food lab was founded by Neil Spillane and Eric Holstein, two young entrepreneurs who wanted to boost Maine’s food economy and help fulfill the dreams of local entrepreneurs who wanted to scale up their businesses. They merged the lab last year with Brooklyn-based Foodworks, now called Pilotworks.

In an emailed response to questions from the Press Herald, Ware said the Portland location simply was no longer viable.

“Everything we do at Pilotworks is designed to create material value for the independent food companies we serve – in a way that’s sustainable without subsidy,” he wrote. “And due to the structural layout and market dynamics in this location, operating sustainably was not feasible long-term (which) led us to the decision to close it.”

Tom and Lindsay Marlow agitate a keg of cold-brewed White Cap Coffee at Fork Food Lab last summer. Tom Marlow said the Fork Food Lab’s closure is “unfortunate because it was a great incubator for the area.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Tom Marlow, co-owner of White Cap Cold Brew Coffee, started his business at Fork Food Lab in September 2016 and moved out a year later. He said he was saddened by the news.

“The Fork Food Lab has changed ownership since we started. I can’t comment on whether or not there is a causal relationship (between new owners and its closure), but it’s unfortunate because it was a great incubator for the area,” Marlow said. “It was an opportunity for companies to get started and have a quick way to (grow) operations without all that capital.”

Marlow said when he and his partner, Ben Graffius, came up with their coffee idea, they needed a way to test the market. Without Fork Food Lab, they may not have had an easy or cost-effective way to do that.

“The other thing that happened was it created a community,” he said, adding that another Fork Food Lab graduate – Cape Whoopies – now shares space with White Cap.

Myranda McGowan, who founded The Whole Almond, which specializes in almond milk, was one of the first members when the lab opened in 2016 and still used it as recently as a month ago.

“It was a shock,” McGowan said of the news. “I’m still trying to sort it all out.”

She said she still uses some of the commercial equipment at the lab and now may be forced to buy her own.

Pilotworks operates three other shared commercial kitchens in New York, Chicago and Dallas that will remain open. There are many others across the country as well.

Christine Cummings, executive director of the Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association, said the decision to close the lab was a surprise.

“I don’t know why but I was down there pretty recently and it seemed like they had to turn people away, so I’m not sure lack of interest was the issue,” she said.

Some of the members who have used the Fork Food Lab include Gelato Fiasco of Brunswick, The Whole Almond, Fat Pants Bakery and Have Chef Will Travel, a South Portland catering company.

Anyone with food-production licenses from the state will need to update them, since they are linked to physical space. Pilotworks said it didn’t have any information about whether any other business will take over that space.

“I hope someone can come in and keep it going,” McGowan said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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