At Fork Food Lab, culinary entrepreneurs have room to grow.
When Kelly Towle launched Plucked Fresh Salsa in early 2014, she did what many start-up food producers do: she prepared the salsa at home, in a commercial kitchen she and her husband, Jason, built in their basement. When her salsa got picked up by a large distributor, and started being sold at Whole Foods and Hannaford stores throughout New England, Towle knew she had to move her growing operation to a larger space. She found it at Fork Food Lab in Portland, where Plucked was among the first companies to sign up for a full-time membership.
Fork Food Lab, which opened last September in West Bayside, is Maine’s first incubator for food entrepreneurs. New and growing companies pay a monthly fee to develop, prepare, and package their products using state-of-the-art commercial kitchen equipment; members also have dedicated storage space and access to business services. Equally important is the community aspect of the enterprise. The shared space promotes collaboration, and entrepreneurs can promote what they make through the onsite tasting room and at events hosted by the food lab. “We didn’t start getting recognized until we started making salsa at Fork,” says Towle, an exuberant woman whose personality matches the lively flavors of her products. “I went from being this weird underground salsa person, to ‘Oh, you’re at Fork.’”
Towle credits Fork founders Neil Spillane and Eric Holstein for having both the entrepreneurial spirit and the business acumen to set the food lab on firm footing. Spillane has a degree in business administration from the University of Maine at Orono and an MBA from Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and was previously CEO at Urban Farm Fermentory, where the success of a smaller shared kitchen space inspired his vision for Fork. Holstein, a Colby College graduate whose degree focused on hotel finance, brings hospitality experience to the team. He served as food and beverage manager for the New York City-based Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, and launched two food businesses—Winter
Warmers, a hot chocolate and s’mores bar in Brooklyn, New York, and the Marshmallow Cart in Portland.
“For our members, fixed costs become variable costs,” says Spillane, as he takes me on a tour of the building. By this, he means that instead of being locked into a commercial lease and all the accompanying expenses, Fork members— there are currently 27—pay on a monthly basis for using the facility. Full-time membership includes unlimited access to the kitchens and more storage than half-time membership, which allows members to use the kitchens for up to 16 hours per week. All members get a prep table, aprons, disposable gloves, hairnets (required wear in the kitchens), paper goods, and cleaning supplies. They wash their own pots and pans, but a crew does the floor mopping and other major cleaning at night.
In the “cold” kitchen on the first floor, Towle has just finished making a batch of salsa, the remnants of which release the scents of lime and cilantro from a giant food processor. Spillane points out a hulking commercial mixer he and Holstein bought from a bakery in New Hampshire; it required a crane—which was luckily onsite—to be lifted into the building. The two men built the walk-in cooler, which came in 19-by-4-foot panels that required three people to lift. “We were hoping to get it up in three days but it took a couple of weeks,” says Spillane. “Everything didn’t quite fit together and we had one of the panels break, so there were some late-night Home Depot trips.”
The stoves, ovens, and most of the prep tables are in the “hot” kitchen on the second floor, along with the dishwashing station. Large windows in the exposed-brick walls brighten the space, and cooks working at the tables access electricity via drop-down cords attached to the ceiling. Until recently, members using both floors had to lug things up and down the stairs, but thanks to a $25,000 grant received earlier this year from the Maine Coworking Development Fund, the building now has a materials lift. “Cape Whoopies has been doing these giant, 80-quarts-at-a-time batches of frosting, and it takes two people to carry those up the stairs,” says Spillane. At one table, we encounter Amanda Porter and Jacob Perry of the startup Dirigo Coffee, as Perry assembles a croquembouche—a French confection made of cream puffs—for his wife’s birthday. His foray into coffee began with a tiny house-like mobile operation called Maker’s Mug and is now headquartered on Fork’s first floor, where Dirigo’s roasting operation shares a dedicated space with White Cap Coffee, makers of nitro cold brew. “We’re hosting home-roasting seminars, and we’ll be selling fully assembled roasting kits for people who really geek out on coffee,” says Perry.
The coffee space has a service window that opens onto Fork Food Lab’s most distinctive feature, the tasting room. Simply outfitted with a few modern tables and chairs, the room is available to all members to showcase their products. “It’s event-based,” says Spillane. “Members come to us with whatever creative idea they think up and we spread it across the membership base.” At an event in late March hosted by sundried tomato producer Replenova Farm, Joyful Spirit offered tastes of its granola, Anchor and Rose Apothecary served herbal teas, and MarthaBar provided samples of chocolate, fruit, and nut bars. Spillane and Holstein also put on larger market events involving most, if not all, of Fork’s 27 members, which spill out of the tasting room into the parking lot.
A buyers’ market in February attracted 45 retailers looking to add new products to their shelves. Catering, too, is part of the mix. “We have a menu of items from our members that our clients pick from,” says Holstein, who spearheads this aspect of Fork’s operations. “So we might have boneless chicken wings coming from Tomaso’s, Cape Whoopies’s whoopie pies, Plucked Salsa doing salsa, Bubbe and Bestemor’s Baking doing cookies, and our actual full-service caterers will fill in the gaps. If you’re a big company that wants to try to support a lot of small businesses, we make it easy.”
On June 22, Fork is one of the hosts of the Portland Food Launch and Festival, a day-long event at Thompson’s Point, planned to coincide with Maine Startup and Create Week. “The morning will be all business development for three tracks: businesses that are starting, that are scaling up, or are really in that accelerated lane to export around the globe,” says Spillane. “We’re reaching out to every single food organization in Maine, as well as 200 food makers.” The public is invited in the evening. “You can’t just work, because there’s no fun in that,” says Holstein. “So we’re opening it up to 1,000-plus people; we’re going to have a main music stage, a ton of breweries involved, and food vendors showcasing what they’re doing.”
Considering Fork has been open less than a year, Spillane and Holstein have already made a significant impact on Portland’s food economy. Two months after they launched their business, Greater Portland was designated by the U.S. Department of Commerce as one of the nation’s Manufacturing Communities for Food Production; among the three success stories cited by the Greater Portland Council of Governments to earn the designation was Fork Food Lab.
“We’re pleased that it’s going smoother than we would have hoped,” says Holstein. “Granted, you never know what to expect when you’re doing startup. You don’t know
if you’re going to be billionaires. You don’t know if you’re just going to lose everything
in a week. You have no clue. Neil and I have worked very hard to really make this a community atmosphere, so it’s nice to see that we really are hitting our stride.”