November 19, 2017
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From fight club to food club in Portland

By Kathleen Pierce, BDN Staff
Updated:

PORTLAND, Maine — At first glance it looks decrepit. The windows are boarded up, the floors uneven. Holes here and there are pitfalls for twisted ankles.

But come summer the tantalizing bouquets of hand pies, Southern fried chicken and squid ink pasta will waft through the industrial brick bunker on Parris Street. In an exciting new turn, a culinary hub is about to overtake this West Bayside relic, former site of an old-school bakery and bare-knuckle boxing gym.

When it opens in July, Fork Food Lab, conceived by Neil Spillane, former CEO of Urban Farm Fermentary, and Brooklynite Eric Holstein, will be “the spot to get cool, innovative food products before they go to market,” said Spillane.

What is a food lab? A shared kitchen space, incubator and test kitchen rolled into one.

Armed with grants and backed by investors, the pair is constructing a two-story commercial kitchen so food entrepreneurs of all stripes and flavors, from beginners to pros, gelato to pasta to cronut makers, can afford to test their creations. Monthly fees, from $500 to $800, will allow startups, food truck operators and home chefs ready to take the next step, to cook, prosper and network under one roof.

“It is a co-working facility for food,” said Holstein.

The lab will be open 24/7, but instead of printers and standup desks, double-deck ovens, stoves, mixers, kettles and tilt skillets will be available for all. The only thing members need is creativity and their own knives.

“We take care of nearly everything, even the rubber gloves,” said Holstein, chief operating officer and Colby College graduate. “We have staff on site to do the deep cleaning and heavy mopping — all these things you don’t think about when you are starting a business.”

Requisites such as high-powered commercial stoves, which fetch well into the thousands, are unattainable for newcomers. Fork will have several.

“If you are starting a business you don’t want to spend $4,000 for an oven,” said Holstein.

This startup could be the missing link in the state’s booming farm-to-table movement.

“Farms are growing in Maine on a yearly basis, but there is not as much push for the small producer, the value-added product,” said Holstein. “We think we can grow that potential in Maine and we think we can grow that economy.”

State Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, an investor and owner of the nearby Bayside Bowl, is bullish on the concept.

“Everyone wants to see the next Stonewall Kitchen, Raye’s Mustard or Schlotterbeck & Foss grow and thrive, and we need the kitchen infrastructure — and more importantly the intentional food community — to make that a reality,” said Alfond in an email.

Located far from the well-trod tourist district, this culinary magnet could become a cornerstone of this emerging neighborhood.

So far, 30 letters of intent have been signed by businesses interested in using the space.

Brunswick-based Gelato Fiasco is a key anchor. Through a giant glass door that will separate the tasting room from the working kitchen, the public can watch gelato wizards whip up new batches and test flavors in their open kitchen.

Josh Davis, co-founder of the craft dessert company, says operating a mini production kitchen here will give Gelato Fiasco an edge in the competitive craft ice cream market.

“We see this as an opportunity to be at the center with people who are starting food businesses and other craft products,” said Davis. “The crowd that Fork will attract are top craft people in Maine.”

To capitalize on that, the company is launching a fellowship program to teach the art of gelato at Fork.

“Our goal is to help people that want to be small ice cream producers. Competition benefits everyone,” said Davis. “We are always looking for the next cool flavor. You never know where the next idea will come from.”

The public, who will be tapped for feedback while new products are tested, is central to Fork’s blueprint.

“It will be a place to connect to the food space in Maine,” said Spillane.

There is an element of food tourism, too. With entrepreneurs turning out tasty, innovative morsels daily, “it’s like a brewery tasting room on steroids,” he said.

Unlike some commercial kitchens, Fork is frontward facing.

“Active feedback for our members could change their recipe,” said Holstein, who will launch a Kickstarter campaign next month focused on programming and events in the tasting room cafe.

The cafe will double as event space for popups, chef demonstrations and lectures. It also will be a marketplace for Fork-made products.

To successful entrepreneurs such as Davis, Fork Food Lab arrives right on time.

“It’s a collaborative sharing economy and Fork is at the forefront of it,” Davis said.

If the idea catches on, more Fork clones could roll out across the region. For now, the owners are eager to “get people in here to live out the dream,” said Spillane.


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