Inside Fork Food Lab, Portland’s first food incubator, the members representing 27 specialty food companies who rent out the shared kitchen space are building more than food products; they are building businesses and connections. Whether placing orders together to bring down costs, sharing information about experiences with a packaging consultant, or giving tips on increasing production volume, each individual enterprise is part of a larger collective effort.
“We wanted to start Fork to create an environment where lots of food entrepreneurs can work around each other to collaborate, learn, and have fun. At the end of the day, humans want to connect. We do better mentally and business-wise when we’re around other people.” — Fork Food Lab Co-Founder Neil Spillane
Building that human connection was at the core of Fork Food Lab’s philosophy from the beginning.
In order to make the dream a reality, Neil Spillane and Eric Holstein, co-founders, needed to first demonstrate the potential for a food incubator in Portland, and ultimately find the funding necessary. With overwhelming community support and networking prowess, Neil and Eric tapped into every resource they knew. “There wasn’t one person on the radar that I didn’t approach,” said Neil.
They realized early on that assembling a funding package would be the greatest challenge, as Fork fell into a rare area of the investment and financing spectrum. The co-founders worked with CEI loan officer Art Stevens to determine the best possible financing options for Fork Food Lab. Among the various funding sources, they identified an SBA loan, coupled with a gap loan from CEI for equipment financing.
“Art Stevens distinctly had the success of our business as a top priority. CEI was the first one in as a professional financier,” said Neil.
CEI’s Agriculture and Food Sector specialists immediately recognized that Fork presents a unique opportunity for small food producers, many of whom are creating recipes and products out of local ingredients in their home kitchens. “We are so excited about Fork because it offers a proven model for these makers to grow and begin to scale production without taking on a costly facility of their own,” said Daniel Wallace of CEI. “Essentially, Fork provides a safe ‘middle ground’ for these companies, backed up by a host of services and connections to new markets.”
In addition to the gap loan and technical assistance, Fork Food Lab has worked with the Women’s Business Center at CEI who currently has six clients working at the food incubator, the Workforce Development team, and the Start Smart program connecting immigrant-owned startups and businesses to the food incubator. At the Taste the World public event held in November, Fork Food Lab welcomed CEI clients Ameera Bread, Asmara Restaurant, and Babylon Restaurant to showcase ethnic foods, teach about other cultures, and offer a space for food entrepreneurs and the Portland community to connect over a shared love of food. “We hope to continue this type of collaboration with Fork and other community organizations with the ultimate goal of supporting early stage immigrant owned food businesses,” added John Scribner, Director of CEI’s StartSmart program. This is just one of a robust lineup of events promoting the talents and products of the Fork member community and connecting them with businesses and individuals outside the walls of the incubator.
Fork Food Lab has gained a tremendous amount of excitement and momentum, and has quickly become one of Portland’s premier venues of workspace, event space, entrepreneurship, resources, knowledge-sharing, opportunity, and connection.
“We’re convinced that Fork will catalyze significant growth for the small food producers entering Maine’s local food economy,” said Daniel Wallace. “Plus, the principals (Neil and Eric) are awesome and deeply engaged in the local community.”
In June, 2017, Fork Food Lab announced a merger with Brooklyn-based Foodworks, a shared kitchen with a similar goal of helping food startups grow. “We are very excited to partner with a company that shares in our vision for a more robust local food system where entrepreneurs with creative recipes can strategically grow,” said Spillane, who will stay on as General Manager of Fork Food Lab. “This merger will allow Fork Food Lab companies to expand distribution into the large New York market and leverage supplier discounts that are available to current Foodworks producers.”