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May 10, 2023

Unusual deal nails down Fork Food Lab’s new home in South Portland

building exterior cars parking lot Courtesy / Malone Commercial Brokers Fork Food Lab bought 95-97 Darling Ave. from East Brown Cow for $5.9 million.
The move is tentatively scheduled for June 1.
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An unconventional sale has allowed Fork Food Lab, a shared commercial kitchen and food startup incubator in Portland, to expand to a permanent location in South Portland.

Fork Food Lab bought 95-97 Darling Ave. from East Brown Cow — a Portland-based real estate investment, development and management company — for $5.9 million.

“Our ability to purchase the property hinged on our partnership with East Brown Cow and they were willing to grant us an unusual amount of time to put all the pieces together to make this a reality for our members,” said Bill Seretta, executive director of Fork Food Lab, indicating that the deal had its roots in 2021.

East Brown Cow was represented by Joe Malone and Jennifer Small of Malone Commercial Brokers in the transaction and Brice O’Connor at the Boulos Co. advised the buyer. 

Construction at the 42,000-square-foot office space is already underway to convert the space into a kitchen and food business incubator.

person in checked shirt smiling
Bill Seretta.

Seretta said the move is expected to happen on or about June 1. 

"Equipment delivery is the biggest variable," he told Mainebiz. "There are still supply chain issues."

Rapid growth

Seretta initially reached out to East Brown Cow in 2021 as the lab emerged from the pandemic with a rapidly growing waitlist and a need to expand into a significantly larger footprint. 

East Brown Cow had a strong interest in supporting the mission-based nonprofit through its growth. So the company held the property off the market for 18 months while financing came together, leasing the space to Fork Food Lab in the interim, and allowing renovations to begin ahead of the sale.

“While others might have opted to put the property back out on the market, we wanted to provide sufficient latitude to ensure the sale would ultimately close,” said Tim Soley of East Brown Cow. 

The property consists of two single-story office buildings, on 3.18 acres, that date back to 1978. They were originally separate structures later joined by an enclosed walkway. 

In 2000, East Brown Cow acquired the property from My Darling LLC and managed it since the acquisition.

Eight-fold growth

Fork Food Lab began leasing the property in 2022. Jennifer Small and Joe Malone represented East Brown Cow in the lease deal and Brice O'Connor at the Boulos Co. represented Fork Food Lab.

Fork Food Lab, owned by a Yarmouth-based nonprofit, is currently at 72 Parris St. in Portland's West Bayside neighborhood; the Darling Avenue space is about eight times the size.

Fork had long outgrown the 5,200-square-foot location, particularly when the pandemic led to a surge in memberships. The business has specific requirements to accommodate membership-based mobile vendors, caterers, food trucks and food producers that require a commercial kitchen space to prepare their products. 

Supporting the mission

Fork Food signed a purchase and sales agreement for the larger space in 2021. 

To finance the deal, in March 2022 Fork was approved by the Finance Authority of Maine for 90% pro rata insurance on a $3.6 million loan from Mascoma Bank, a mutual bank headquartered in Lebanon, N.H., that has a Portland office

But the deal hit a snag when an investment fund that was going to contribute $2.5 million pulled out at the last minute, Seretta told Mainebiz last year.

As a result, Fork went into negotiations with East Brown Cow for a lease agreement, which also gave the lab an option to buy the property.

East Brown Cow’s support of the project gave Fork the confidence to start investing in the property before the sale was finalized, meaning members could benefit from the space much sooner. 

“The building was in such great condition and maintained immaculately and this allows us to focus our budget on outfitting the space for our food producers,” said Seretta.

The sale is East Brown Cow’s second in as many years and represents the continuation of a recalibration of their portfolio away from the management of suburban flex space and toward reinvestment of capital into the urban fabric of Portland's fast-changing downtown.

“We strongly support Fork Food Lab’s mission and loved the idea of the space being used to grow their impact,” said Soley. “From the start, we were open to working collaboratively and creatively to identify a path forward that produced the best results for the greater community.”

Fork began operations in 2016 and has hosted dozens of food business startups. Its members include specialty food producers, food trucks, bakeries, catering companies and cooking classes. As of fall 2021, 120 businesses have cycled through Fork, generating a total economic impact of 411 jobs and $15.3 million in earnings.

Soley established East Brown Cow in 1989. Its portfolio has grown to include over 20 assets in the Greater Portland urban area, including over 1.2 million square feet of mixed-use office, retail, hospitality space and structured parking.

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