Fork Food Lab is a collaborative food maker space opening late summer in West Bayside. The project will mark the first food incubator in Maine, and the first incubator with an attached tasting room in the world. There are lots of stories that tie into how this came to be, but for now I will tell the “Cliff Notes” version.
When I was managing the Urban Farm Fermentory we had taken on an extra warehouse in our building that was used to rent out kitchen space to food entrepreneurs. I noticed that there was always a waiting list and that the potential to create a community around these food experiments was an untapped market.
First, I researched the hell out of shared kitchen space and what I know now to be the food incubator model. I met the founders of Union Kitchen in Washington DC thanks to Caroline Paras at GPCOG, and they turned into my consultants. Their wildly successful project provided proof of concept. There was still the question of whether it would be viable in Portland. I sat down with Jess Knox in December 2014 to tell him I seriously wanted to pursue this idea. He was evangelist #1.
At this point, I was still by myself, but I had written an impressive business plan and was starting to generate some buzz in the underground food scene. I recruited 12 board of advisor members that helped bring legitimacy to the project along with some great advice and connections I also started working with an awesome mentor, SCORE chapter chair Nancy Strojny, who guided me through the process of leaving Urban Farm Fermentory to move into full-time fundraise mode for Fork.
A potential future member of the food lab that reached out to me was Eric Holstein who ran the Marshmallow Cart. He was looking for kitchen space for his food cart and wanted to meet. In preparing for the meeting, I looked at his extensive food and beverage consulting background on LinkedIn and knew the meeting would turn into the first of several co-founder interviews. He passed.
Next came the hardest test for Fork Food Lab, whether investors would buy into the plan, growing team, and vision. We pitched organizations such as the Maine Angels, Slow Money Maine, MTI, Maine Venture Fund, CEI. Plus I had about 100 coffees with individual angel investors. I had become a true hunter for the first time in my life.
We picked up steam on the fundraising front slowly and surely. The early investments were from people close to the project such as Eric, myself, and some members of the board. We were awarded a $100k grant from the USDA, which went a long way.
Building out a kitchen is expensive, so although we had a decent chunk of equity and access to traditional bank financing, we still needed a big investor that glued together the whole package. One angel in particular, who I had been keeping in the loop since the beginning, finally engaged in a serious way and we were able to close out a round with him running lead.
Without a doubt, the key was to surround myself with other supportive entrepreneurs that dream big. I’m excited to be a part of all the startup success stories that will emerge out of Fork Food Lab in the coming years.
Fork Food Lab
Neil Spillane, is founder of Forq Food Labs, and former CEO of Urban Farm Fermentory (UFF), a manufacturer of hard cider, kombucha, and mead in Portland. While helping to form the Bay 1 food hub where foodtrepreneurs could rent one of three kitchens monthly - he realized the strong need for a collaborative commercial kitchen space in Portland. Thus he created Fork Food Lab with the idea of having Portland build stronger community ties around food with a goal toward having the city recognized as a national leader in progressive local sustenance.
Neil's understanding of the food and beverage world started at 15 while washing dishes and cooking in Mid Coast Hospital's kitchen. He later worked summers for Pine State Trading, Maine's largest food and beverage distributor focusing on beer and wine merchandising. He has a B.S. in Business Finance from the University of Maine Orono, an MBA from Quinnipiac University, and has passed level 1 of the Chartered Financial Analyst exam.