Fork Food Lab, the shared commercial kitchen that’s helped launch many successful food businesses in southern Maine, is under contract to buy a larger property in South Portland to accommodate its growing membership and add a food processing and packaging line to better support its members as their businesses grow.

After searching for a new home for two years, then nearly shutting down during the pandemic, the food-business incubator is back to having a waiting list for membership – largely because of immigrant and out-of-state entrepreneurs who have moved here.

A place where entrepreneurs chase their dreams of making everything from hot sauce and popsicles to Latin empanadas and Chinese dumplings, Fork Food Lab is currently based in Portland, in a leased, two-story, 5,200-square foot building at 72 Parris St. that does not have an elevator or much parking. Bill Seretta, the executive director, said the new location at 95-97 Darling Ave. near the Maine Mall in South Portland includes two buildings with a combined footprint of 42,000 square feet, about eight times more than the Portland building. One of the buildings is leased into 2023 by Wex, which formerly leased the other building.

Seretta cautioned that the new location is not yet a done deal. While the space is under contract, the lab still has to go through due diligence, arrange financing, and find contractors, which can be a challenge during the pandemic. He hopes to close on the property in the next couple of months and get underway on the buildout, “but there’s so many possibilities of things going sideways.”

Fork Food Lab is under contract to buy 95-97 Darling Ave. in South Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

If the deal goes through, Fork Food Lab would occupy about 18,000 to 25,000 square feet of the property, with plenty of room to spare for other food producers who might want to relocate there, creating a kind of “food hub,” Seretta said. He said he’s been talking with several businesses about the idea, but declined to name them.

Founded in 2016, Fork Food Lab was a jumping off point for many businesses that have gone on to have great success in their own spaces, including Cape Whoopies, Parlor Ice Cream Co., Plucked Fresh Salsa, Mill Cove Baking Co. and Falafel Mafia, whose owners operate a food truck and the restaurant Nura.

Fork Food Lab almost closed at the beginning of the pandemic after losing almost half its members, but bounced back in 2021, doubling its membership in just four months. “Now we are at 57 (members) and we have a waiting list,” Seretta said. “We’re over capacity, and we just can’t take anymore unless some people want to come in and work at midnight.”

NEWCOMERS FUELING GROWTH

The newest members come from one of two groups, Seretta said. The number of immigrant members has doubled from 10 to 20 percent, and the rest are people moving to Maine from other parts of the country, such as Boston and New York.

Zoe Borenstein, a private chef, carries a tray of chocolate chip cookies to a cooking rack while working at Fork Food Lab in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Hannah Lake White, owner of Lake & Co., a catering company that works out of Fork Food Lab, said she’s excited about the potential move because “by growing into a bigger space, I think it’s going to allow people to be more efficient with their businesses.”

Mike Geary of Lake & Co. makes ginger orange jam in the kitchen at Fork Food Lab in Portland on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Before COVID hit, White’s company was seasonal, catering weddings and other mostly warm-weather events. In spring 2020, when all those events were being canceled, she pivoted to preparing to-go food at Fork Food Lab so she could feed hungry people quarantined in their homes. She was busy all summer. Then, from Thanksgiving last year and through the winter, Lake & Co.’s takeout business really took off. She hired her first full-time employees and became a year-round business, making money during months that previously had contributed nothing to her bottom line.

Last spring, she started searching for her own space, but in the end decided to just upgrade her membership at Fork Food Lab, where she doesn’t have to worry about extra costs such as cleaning kitchen hoods and grease traps. “I feel like I would have never widened my net of customers as big as I have without their help,” White said.

White said if things go as planned with the South Portland space, members would have their own “pod” where they can store all of their own equipment and lock their own doors.

“It would be your own kitchen space with your own equipment and the things that you need for what you make,” she said. “That is really exciting because as much as I look forward to having my own brick and mortar someday, I really loved being a part of a community kitchen. I’ve learned so much from other members. It’s a wonderful place to bounce ideas off other entrepreneurs.”

NEW INGREDIENTS

Seretta said the relocated Fork Food Lab also will include a food processing and packaging space to help members grow their businesses. Fork Food Lab works by renting space and equipment to its members, and in turn the lab supports them with services such as testing and marketing, getting their food into potential customers’ bellies.

Mike Geary of Lake & Co., a catering company, makes a ginger orange jam in the kitchen at Fork Food Lab in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Our weakness has been that, as they grow, we don’t have the capacity to support that,” Seretta said.

Scaling up processing and packaging is, he said, “a huge deal, and for the most part you do that from your stovetop, or you do it in huge manufacturing facilities, and there’s not much in between.”

Seretta compares the production line he envisions to the advent of desktop publishing. He calls it “tabletop processing and packaging” because the design will make it more accessible to more people.

A relocated Fork Food Lab also would benefit the South Portland community by bringing lots of potential new businesses to the area, said Bill Mann, the city’s economic development director.

Mann thinks the project could open up opportunities for part-time internships for high schools students, as well as provide “great positive synergy” between Fork Food Lab and the culinary school at Southern Maine Community College.

“Anytime there’s an investment in our community that brings jobs, creativity and entrepreneurship, we think that’s a good thing,” he said.

This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. Wednesday to clarify the timing of Wex’s leases on the South Portland buildings.


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