A couple of dudes decide to spend spring break growing mushrooms in the kitchen of a Berkeley frat house: It sounds like the setup for a cautionary tale, or maybe an extremely hallucinogenic Judd Apatow movie. Instead, Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez stumbled upon a brilliantly simple way to change the way we think about food production.
In 2009, the pair launched Back to the Roots, which began as a tiny mushroom farm and has since moved full-time into producing irresistible little kits that allow pretty much anyone to grow their own oyster mushrooms—green thumb and backyard not required. The idiot-proof packages are now available in Whole Foods and Home Depot; soon, they’ll appear in traditional grocery stores nationwide. “Our vision is to make food personal again,” Arora says. “We’re trying to show anyone can grow their own.”
Arora and Velez met as business students in their final semester at Berkeley in ’09, when one sentence from a shared business ethics professor derailed their post-grad plans of entering the financial sector. “Our professor said you could grow gourmet mushrooms on agricultural waste, like coffee grounds,” Arora remembers. “We both reached out after class to ask for more information, and he was like, ‘Honestly, I have no idea, but this other kid asked me about it too. You guys should link up.’”
The two hit it off, and their spring break experiment resulted in one perfect bucket of oyster mushrooms. “I had only eaten mushrooms on, like, Domino’s,” Arora laughs. “We had no idea what we had just grown.” So they bravely walked the bucket of mushrooms down the street to the legendary Chez Panisse, where owner Alice Waters had her head chef sauté a few to discover that they were, in fact, delicious. Then they walked the bucket into the Berkeley Whole Foods, where news of their ultra-locavore crop eventually made it up the email chain to the regional produce coordinator. Whole Foods became their first sale: 3.14 pounds. The invoice still hangs on their wall.
As the business grew, Arora and Velez also built a partnership with locally based Peet’s Coffee, somehow convincing the company to pay them to cart away used coffee grounds—which means they now turn a small profit on their biggest raw material. And as the two began giving tours of their West Oakland warehouse, where they would eventually grow as many as 500 pounds of fresh mushrooms per week. Then visitors started asking if they could take the coffee/spawn mixture home and try it themselves. The Back to the Roots kit was born.
Well, almost. “The kits started off as this clear basketball-sized bag of fungus,” Arora says. “We thought it looked beautiful. We presented it to our regional buyer at Whole Foods, and—I’ll never forget—he said, ‘That’s disgusting! No one’s going to buy that. But cool concept.” Some designer friends finally pitched in, leading to the streamlined cardboard box the company uses today. “We talked a lot about Apple,” Arora says of the design process, “how they took this geeky, nerdy stereotype mainstream through good design and ease of use. We feel like the local food movement is stuck in a Berkeley hippie stereotype, so what if you add good design and ease of use? We started off with a bulky bag we could barely sell at a farmers market, and it’s cool to see how by adding some style, you can sell it in Skymall.”
Fast forward to today: Back to the Roots has created 31 green-collar jobs in West Oakland, and they’re collecting and diverting about 40,000 pounds a week of coffee ground waste from the landfill. “It’s so cool to see this whole company now. Our team, our brand, our products—everything is built off of trash,” Arora says. And turning waste into food just once isn’t enough anymore: This summer, Arora says, they plan to start embedding vegetable seeds into the kits’ cardboard boxes, allowing budding farmers to grow their shrooms, plant the box, fertilize it with the leftover coffee grounds, and (hopefully) come up with tomatoes, basil, onions, or parsley.
Perhaps most importantly, Back to the Roots has reached an estimated 10,000 kids via a Facebook campaign that donates mushroom gardens to elementary school classrooms nationwide. “We’re the first to admit that this kit is not going to solve world hunger,” Arora says. “We’re trying to create tools. We look at this like the first time you ride a bike: It’s an experience a kid never forgets. They can grow this kit, and it might inspire them to think, ‘If I can grow this, where’s the other stuff I’m eating coming from?’”
This piece is part of Change Generation, our series on young, changemaking entrepreneurs. Read the rest here.