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October 3, 2018

Two challenges face new owner of Fork Food Lab: Grow membership, erase debt

Photo / Renee Cordes
Photo / Renee Cordes
Bill Seretta, president of The Sustainability Lab, at Portland's Fork Food Lab on Tuesday with general manager Jenn Stein, a day after the Yarmouth-based nonprofit became the new owner of the shared commercial kitchen and food incubator.

The new owner of Portland's Fork Food Lab on Tuesday laid out plans to boost membership in the shared commercial kitchen and food business incubator whose alumni successes include Sky's Café that just opened in Yarmouth.

"Our future is looking bright, but we must do a couple things," Bill Seretta, president of The Sustainability Lab, told journalists at the West Bayside facility.

He was speaking a day after the Yarmouth-based nonprofit struck a deal with building owner Forq LLC to take over Fork Food Lab operations from Pilotworks — a New York-based firm with similar food incubators in Brooklyn, Chicago, Dallas and Newark, N.J.

The change in ownership comes two months after Pilotworks abruptly announced plans to close Fork Food Lab at the end of September.

"Everyone said it should continue," Seretta said, "and we decided to take that on," which was easier to do as a nonprofit.

Though he didn't disclose details of how the agreement came about, Seretta said he was familiar with Fork as the first winner of his organization's New England Food System Innovation Challenge in 2015.

He also warned that that losing a "cornerstone of the startup community" would have come at a great cost to Portland, Bon Appetit magazine's 2018 restaurant city of the year.

"If you lose that traction," he said, "you can't get it back."

Top priorities: Build membership, erase debt

Photo / Renee Cordes
Photo / Renee Cordes
Tara Canaday of Suga Suga moved to Portland from Boston this summer.

Seretta's plans for the coming year include boosting Fork Food Lab's membership from 25 businesses to 45, and raising $250,000 to eliminate debt.

Asked by Mainebiz about how he plans to raise the money, Seretta said two or three people are already approaching potential donors and that the organization is also pursuing a couple of grants to help fill the void.

"I think it's going to take several months to get there," he said.

Instead of taking a formal lease and being locked in for years, Fork Food Lab members can reserve hour blocks of time when they wish for use of a prep table, access to equipment, cold and dry storage, and all the paper goods and sanitary supplies they need. Besides use of the space, members value collaboration with fellow entrepreneurs, like sharing tips on suppliers or going together to farmers' markets.

Startups relieved

Photo / Renee Cordes
Photo / Renee Cordes
Bolivia native Adrian Espinoza rolls empanadas at Fork Food Lab, where his Empanada Club startup is based.

Current members include Maddie Purcell, a 2018 Mainebiz Next honoree whose Fyood Kitchen organizes social cooking competitions for groups, and Mill Cove Baking Co. founder Nina Murray. A year and a half into the business of making packaged crackers, Murray said she wouldn't have been ready to leave Fork Food Lab had it closed.

"If I had been forced to leave I could have made it work," she said, "but it's a huge relief not to have to rush into that decision."

In its outreach to potential new members and the community at large, Fork Food Lab will host an open house this Friday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. as part of Portland's First Friday Art Walk and a Halloween celebration on Oct. 31 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

"We think this facility is going to be the future for many of the new businesses that come to Maine in the food space," Seretta said.

Jenn Stein, general manager of Fork Food Lab, said it comes as a "great relief" to remain open. She said that while there are busy days and quiet days at the 5,000-square-foot space, "it's always a fun energy."

Some of that energy was evident Tuesday at the venue, where Bolivia native Adrian Espinoza of Empanada Club was rolling chicken- and vegetable-filled empanadas and Tara Canaday of Suga Suga was mixing ingredients for the French macarons she sells all over the city and removing trays of pretty-looking blue treats from the oven.

Between tasks she told Mainebiz that she moved here from Boston this summer, lured in part by Portland's thriving food scene. She hopes to add to that through stand-out flavors like blueberry cheesecake, saying, "I try not to do traditional French macarons."

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