Back to the Roots: Mushrooming into Sustainable Success

07 Jan, 2013

Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora were two bright UC Berkeley undergraduates headed, like many others, for the corporate world and upward mobility. How, then, did they end up drastically changing direction and innovating products—such as a hugely successful self-contained kit for growing mushrooms—designed to help average people sustainably grow their own food?

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“We both were undergrad business students,” Nikhil Arora told Organic Connections. “I was going into consulting, and Alex was going to investment banking. 

A couple months before graduation, we were in a business ethics class, and our professor had this thought that you could possibly grow gourmet mushrooms in recycled coffee grounds. It was a lesson about sustainability. Alex and I didn’t know each other at the time, but something about that struck us both. The professor put Alex and me in touch with each other, and that’s how we met up.”

For the two of them it was a true inspiration. “We both had other passions that we really loved, but we never knew how to apply them to a business,” Nikhil explained. “I spent six months of my junior year in Ghana and West Africa working on a recycling program and was into sustainability. Alex had just started one of the biggest one-on-one mentorship programs on campus, connecting a lot of local elementary school students with mentorship. With the mushroom idea, we found a way to do good work through business, and I think that’s why we both got excited about it and decided to jump into it. It was definitely a 180-degree shift in what we were doing.”

Off with a Bang

And jump into it they did. They immediately hit up their local Peet’s Coffee, which was only too happy to get rid of coffee grounds in a more positive way than continuously contributing to a landfill. Alex’s fraternity turned into a test lab, and three months later their fledgling mushroom farm business, Back to the Roots, was founded.

At first, they were simply growing mushrooms and selling them locally. “When we started off, we walked into the Berkeley Whole Foods with a paint bucket of mushrooms,” Nikhil related. “We had no experience or connections to anything in retail and didn’t know what was going on. We went to the first guy we saw in the produce bar, someone just packing the vegetables. We told him we were growing mushrooms in coffee grounds, and he thought it was pretty cool. He sent us to someone else, and we ended up being passed around the whole store—we must have talked to 7–10 people that day.”

“We Want to Do It Ourselves!”

That trip into Whole Foods ended up getting their mushroom farm off the ground—but it turned out that many individuals they encountered wanted something else. “We had a lot of people asking if they could come by and visit our farm,” Nikhil continued. “And they’d say, ‘Hey, that’s kind of cool, but how could we do it ourselves? Can I take one of your bags and do it at home or something like that?’ So we decided to launch a kit.”

The initial effort wasn’t so much of a success. “Our first ones were these big bulky plastic bags the size of a basketball that we could barely sell at a farmers’ market,” Nikhil said, laughing. “I remember a Whole Foods buyer saying, ‘It’s a cool concept, but that’s disgusting! Get that out of my face!’ We realized that the idea was there but we had to make it look good too, because people were afraid of fungus—they didn’t want to put a big bag of fungus on their kitchen table.”

A bit of research and design later, the current neat kit was born. It looks a lot like a milk carton, but it’s actually a self-contained mini–mushroom farm that will produce a 1½-pound crop of pearl oyster mushrooms in 10 days.

And this version has indeed been a hit. Alejandro and Nikhil began by getting into Whole Foods Market, store by store, conducting demonstrations and selling shoppers on the idea. It wasn’t long before Whole Foods Market decided to launch the kit nationally—and the two innovators haven’t looked back.

“It’s been a lot of fun this past year,” Nikhil said. “A big question mark was, can we sell these kits outside of the natural food space? It’s been a really exciting experience to see that we can; we’re selling them now in Home Depot, Nordstrom, Bed Bath and Beyond, and we launch in ToysRUs in March. It’s quite remarkable to discover that if you can design something well and then make it fun and easy, a lot of people can get into it.”

In addition to utilizing a substantial waste stream (coffee grounds) in their product, they are also giving back in other ways. For example, unused mushroom kits that don’t achieve the quality grade make a fantastic soil amendment, which they have given away to schools for gardens and sold on the retail market in their Northern California region.

Self-Cleaning Fish Tank/Herb Garden

Alejandro and Nikhil are launching a new product now—one which, like their mushroom kit, also teaches consumers about sustainability and growing food through an enticing small package. “We’re launching a home aquaponics kit,” Nikhil said. “We’ve had incredible response to the idea. It’s a little fish tank, and basically the fish waste is upcycled as a fertilizer for plants such as herbs, baby greens or spinach, which are planted on top. The plants in turn are cleaning the water, so it’s like a self-cleaning fish tank—you never have to clean the water. And there’s no soil or chemical fertilizer needed; it just grows totally on all the rich nutrients in
the water.”

The kit comes with everything but the fish—however, included are coupons for free fish that can be redeemed at pet retailers.

Alejandro and Nikhil have most definitely found their (not-so-small) niche. “Our whole vision is making food personal again,” Nikhil concluded. “It’s like, how can we get people to experience connecting to their food by either growing or creating it, and have it be easy and fun? We want our brand to be accessible to many more people than just those who already get it. Our challenge is to make it look really, really good. A person may not care about aquaponics, for example, but they might just want something beautiful in their home. They buy our product because of that; then they can learn about it.”

For more information, please visit www.backtotheroots.com.

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