Fans of Fork Food Lab have cooked up a plan to save the kitchen incubator that has helped launch food businesses making everything from almond milk to whoopie pies.

A group of entrepreneurs is in negotiations to take over the operation of the Portland shared commercial kitchen as a nonprofit on or about Oct. 1, said Bill Seretta, president of The Sustainability Lab in Yarmouth and chair of the Maine Food System Innovation Challenge. He emphasized that the deal is still not done and no papers have been signed, but added that he’s “pretty confident this is going to work out.”

“It looks good at this point,” Seretta said. “I don’t see any reason why this won’t happen. That could change in a week.”

Fork Food Lab was founded in 2016, then purchased last year by a New York-based company called Pilotworks that operates three other shared commercial kitchens in New York, Dallas and Chicago. The company abruptly announced at the end of July that it was closing the Portland operation and that Fork Food Lab members would have until the end of September to vacate the building. That left the members scrambling to find alternative work spaces.

Seretta said 32 startup food companies still use the 6,000-square-foot commercial kitchen at 72 Parris St., sharing equipment and storage space. Only two or three members have already left, Seretta said, “and a couple of those were going to be leaving anyway.”

Members have been meeting regularly since Pilotworks announced it was walking away from the business, helping each other scout out other commercial kitchens they might be able to transition to by the eviction deadline. More recently, Seretta has been meeting with them, keeping them up to date on the ongoing negotiations with the owners of the Bayside building.

“We’ve been able to head off the initial panic that everyone felt when that was announced out of the blue,” he said.

Reached Wednesday, Eric Holstein, one of the owners of the building and a founder of Fork Food Lab, said he had no comment. Pilotworks did not respond to a request for comment from the head of the company.

Seretta, who said he’s launched seven startups himself, is leading the effort to save the lab. He noted that Fork Food Lab won the first Maine Food System Innovation Challenge, a competition that encourages entrepreneurs to come up with new ideas for the production, processing and distribution of local foods.

“I just felt somebody had to do this,” he said. “I just happened to have the skill set and the connections.”

Seretta would not name others in the group, but said many of them have been involved in the Maine Food System Innovation Challenge and “if I were to give you the names, they would be people you would recognize, who are pretty prominent in this arena.”

He said the group is raising money now, trying to line up donors for the transition if the deal goes through.

Seretta said the best way to move forward with the lab is to run it as a nonprofit and with a goal of breaking even. He said what for-profit models like Pilotworks do is find interesting food startups and then invest in them as they scale up, hoping for something big to come of their investment.

“There’s nothing wrong with that model, it just doesn’t fit what is going on here in Maine,” Seretta said. “We might get an occasional big-scale food venture. We might get one, but we’re not going to get dozens.”

When Fork Food Lab was founded, members paid a monthly fee, based on a membership category, to use the lab’s ovens, 80-quart mixers and loading docks. The more they paid, the more they got in equipment and services. Pilotworks changed that model to a flat hourly fee, a change that Seretta said didn’t sit well with the members. He said if the deal goes through, the lab will revert to its previous payment structure.

Seretta said they don’t expect the lab to break even until next summer because it’s entering the time of year when it has fewer active, paying members. The busiest months are from March or April to October, he said.

Seretta hopes the deal will become official in a week or so.

“This place can’t close, pure and simple,” he said, “And it won’t. That’s my approach. Even though there’s no lease signed, I’m acting as if there were. You’ve got to make it happen.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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