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Updated: October 7, 2021

Portland's Fork Food Lab agrees to buy bigger space as membership strains capacity

Adrian Espinoza making empanadas File photo/ Renee Cordes Fork Food Lab, a shared commercial kitchen and food business incubator in Portland, has seen the proportion of immigrant and BIPOC members grow during the pandemic. Shown here is Bolivia native Adrian Espinoza Garcia, of Empanada Club, preparing dishes.

Fork Food Lab, a Portland shared commercial kitchen and business incubator, has signed an agreement to buy a bigger space in South Portland to alleviate current capacity constraints.

"We signed a purchase and sales agreement for 42,000 square feet in South Portland, which is about eight times what we have now," Bill Seretta, Fork Food Lab's executive director and president of its Yarmouth-based nonprofit owner, told Mainebiz on Wednesday.

While he wouldn't disclose the location or other details, Seretta said the property consists of two buildings, a portion of which will be leased to "like-minded food businesses," and that due diligence is underway.

"We would hope to have a closing before the end of the year, but this is a very complex proposition," he said, underscoring that while the move would be a major step for Fork Food, it's not yet a done deal.

If the deal does close, Seretta said a move would occur in stages, over the course of two years.

Fork Food Lab, currently based in 5,200 square feet at 75 Parris St. in Portland's West Bayside neighborhood, has been searching for bigger space and talking with a host of potential partners for some time.

The potential move comes amid a growing membership roster at Fork Food Lab, currently at capacity with 57 members. That's up from fewer than 24 members in June 2020 when it was "on the verge of closing" before receiving needed funds including a Paycheck Protection Plan loan, according to Seretta.

Today, "we're totally overwhelmed with requests for space, and I'm hoping that our planned move is going to alleviate that," he said. While that means having to turn would-be members away, there is a waiting list and spaces that open up when members leave, like the spot Soul Food Paradise will vacate to move soon into the Maine Mall Food Court.

"Unless people want to come in late in the evening or early in the morning, we're simply at capacity," Seretta says. On the other hand, "we have plenty of space if you want to come in at odd hours."

More immigrant, BIPOC business owners

During the pandemic when Fork Food Lab started an online market out of necessity, the facility's membership profile has also changed.

Today, for example, the percentage of businesses owned by immigrants and BIPOC entrepreneurs is around 20%, about double what it was previously. 

Seretta said he also sees a growing number of prepared food ventures, predicting more to come driven by strong consumer interest.  

"That demand is not going to go away now," he said.

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