Fork Food Lab is connecting food makers with food lovers in Portland, Maine’s West Bayside neighborhood.
During his time as CEO at Urban Farm Fermentory, Neil Spillane ran a collective of kitchens in East Bayside; this was his first experience running a quasi food hub. He ultimately realized the concept needed a full-time organization just to run the kitchens and coordinate collaborations. “That was the genesis for Fork Food Lab—a shared kitchen on steroids,” says Spillane.
Spillane and his partner, Eric Holstein, founded Fork Food Lab in July 2016 as a shared kitchen and tasting room. Located in Portland’s West Bayside neighborhood, Fork Food Lab is a community space that connects food makers with food lovers.
“We have 27 companies operating out of the incubator, the community forming is very tight and passionate, and our ticketed events have been selling out almost every time,” Spillane says. Fork Food Lab has hosted a wide range of events since opening, including a Friendsgiving feast, pop-up brunch, buyers market, and pig butchery class.
“The community is very supportive of local food, there is always a pipeline of ambitious people looking to launch food businesses, and I was lucky enough to find a building close to downtown that was perfect,” Spillane says.
Fork’s member group is as diverse as there are types of carrots. Current members include specialty food producers, food trucks, bakeries, and catering companies. Between them, they produce products from kale chips to fried seafood to maple syrup and gluten-free bread. “It’s food with a story,” Spillane says. “That difference is huge in how diners are thinking about where to spend the cash.”
Apart from the commercial kitchen space, the tasting room has been another important factor in the Lab’s success. An event-driven flex space for members, as well as the community, to use, the tasting room has hosted pop-ups, private parties, classes, and marketplaces. Recently the Lab hosted a brunch in the tasting room; all four seatings were sold out. “The model is to use member products from Fork in all of the dishes,” Spillane says. “In this case, it was 10 different companies represented on the menu, with a couple even helping out on the line in the kitchen.
Spillane has lived in Portland for five years now and says he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else (a common theme amongst Portlanders). When he was thinking about launching this concept, he knew it would be buoyed by the strong food industry in the area.
“I have grown up hearing people say the pace of life is slower here in Maine, and that is true,” says Spillane. “What I’ve come to learn is that the time people spend on work relative to play is different here and in New England as a whole. People really like to enrich their time on Earth here, and shape their behavior and work habits to match those ideals.”