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April 4, 2016

Food lab planned for West Bayside site

Photo Courtesy / CBRE|The Boulos Co. The 5,700-square-foot commercial building, at 272 Lancaster St. that will be the new home of the Fork Food Lab.

PORTLAND — The sale of an aging brick building for use as a “food lab” is expected to give the up-and-coming West Bayside area in Portland a further lift.

Partners Neil Spillane and Eric Holstein purchased the 5,700-square-foot commercial building, at 272 Lancaster St., for $505,000, in a deal that closed March 9, according to Andrew Ingalls, senior broker at CBRE|The Boulos Co.

The two-story building, which dates to 1900, was part of a sizeable portfolio owned by a Connecticut resident who is liquidating properties following the sudden death of her husband. She sold this property under the name Mahoney LLC.

The building, whose windows are boarded up and walls are marked with graffiti, took a while to attract interest.

But Spillane sees it as ideal for the planned Fork Food Lab, a collaborative commercial kitchen serving new and existing food businesses. The idea is that, for affordable full-time and part-time membership fees, Fork provides cooking space and equipment, serves as a business mentor, and distributes product — allowing food entrepreneurs to focus on creating food.

Spillane, 29, is former CEO of Portland’s Urban Farm Fermentory, a manufacturer of hard cider, kombucha and mead. He said that in his three years there, from 2013-15, the company grew sales five-fold as it expanded into three states. He said he helped form its Bay One food hub, which had three kitchens available to food entrepreneurs on a monthly basis.

“Managing those three kitchens, I realized there was a big demand for that kind of thing in Portland,” he said. “The kitchens were always full.”

He also began to understand the problems faced by new, small food businesses. Cooks who want to spend their days happily tinkering with recipes are faced with the reality of crafting business plans, dealing with the logistics of packaging and distribution and other nitty-gritty aspects of running a business.

Spillane discovered a food-business incubator in Washington, D.C., Union Kitchen, that allows food entrepreneurs to focus on creating products and provided support services.

“That was my first ‘Aha!’ moment,” he said.

He said he was attracted to 272 Lancaster for its size, affordable price and potential for helping transform West Bayside.

“West Bayside has the most value of anywhere in Portland right now,” he said. “It’s on the peninsula. It’s where the action is. This is a little bit of a beaten-down neighborhood right now, but that adds to the story. We have a chance to revitalize that community and clean up West Bayside. And there are other smart people making investments in the area,” including the redevelopment of the nearby Schlotterbeck & Foss building. “In general, the Bayside area of Portland is becoming a food and beverage cluster. West Bayside has a lot of opportunities to fill out the food piece.”

In the 1940s, the building housed Hirnings Bakery on the first floor and Forrest City Gym, one of Portland's early boxing gyms, upstairs.

In recent years, upgrades included masonry repairs, new roof, and the purchase of new windows ready to be installed.

It’s basically a shell, in need of work. The first floor will be divided, with the entrance leading to a public tasting room, a large window looking through to a special events room, and a second window looking onto a small kitchen. The second floor will mainly comprise a larger kitchen. Construction will include plumbing, hooded ventilation, flooring, ceilings, and walls. All together, the lab will feature over 5,000 square feet of kitchen space, accommodating up to 45 small food entities in a mix of full- and part-time monthly memberships.

With equipment and furnishings, the investment is substantial, said Spillane, who declined to cite an estimate.

A number of funding sources made purchase and rehab possible. These included several private investors; loans from Bangor Savings Bank, Small Business Administration and Coastal Enterprises Inc.; and grants of $100,000 from the USDA, $10,000 from the city of Portland as part of a job creation grant program, and $5,000 plus six hours of legal services as one of two winners in the first Maine Farm, Fish, and Food Innovation Challenge.

Spillane has secured letters of intent from about 30 food businesses, including specialty food producers, catering companies, and food trucks/carts. He’s now moving to secure membership contracts.

The lab’s No. 1 selling point is affordable kitchen space.

“We’ll start at $500 per month for a part-time membership,” Spillane said. “That’s much lower than what people would pay to rent a kitchen.”

The tasting room is also important.

“We’re in an environment where you want to be a successful food business and, to grow, you need great products,” Spillane said. “So the tasting room is that first step, where Fork members can sell products right away and get feedback on different iterations.”

Construction is expected to start in April, with a soft launch in late July.

Read more

Tiny-house food truck could be a big hit in Portland

Fork Food Lab raising $30K for public tasting space

Fork Food Lab receives accolades for job creation, economic development

Portland gets its first taste of the Fork Food Lab

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