Readers, this is a guest post from Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez, co-founders of Back to the Roots, an interesting new business. The two are growing gourmet pearl-oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds, and are selling kits to allow consumers to do the same. I love the idea of growing food on what would otherwise be waste, so invited them to tell us how they got started.
Alex and Nikhil, co-founders of a sustainable mushroom venture
From the Grounds Up: Our Sustainable Story of Coffee to MushroomsIt was Spring ’09 and we were fourth years at UC Berkeley. Both of us had offers in corporate America. Investment banking and consulting seemed to be the futures waiting for us after graduation. All that changed one day after listening to a lecture in one of our business ethics courses when we first heard about the idea that gourmet mushrooms can be grown on recycled coffee grounds.
Seven million tons of coffee per year - most winds up as wasteWe could really do something with this idea: we discussed the possibilities. America is absolutely addicted to coffee. The world production of coffee is nearly 7 million tons a year. Only 1% ends up in the cup, while 99% ends up in landfills. The possibility of diverting this waste stream into something of value, gourmet mushrooms, was something we just couldn't let go. As the weeks went by, we really dove into first seeing if we could actually grow mushrooms from coffee grounds, and then seeing if this idea could work as the basis of a full scale social venture.
We won our initial funding in a UC Berkeley competitionThe first plan of action was definitely an interesting experience. We went around to local coffee shops collecting used coffee grounds. Out of the 10 buckets of the mushrooms we planted, only one grew. In that one bucket though, we saw potential. We took that batch to the local Berkeley Whole Foods, and the team members we showed it to took a real interest. We created a plan and submitted our business proposal to "Bears Breaking Boundaries," an entrepreneurial competition sponsored by the UC Berkeley Chancellor to provide $5,000 in initial funding for a ground breaking project. And that's really the story of how we got started, giving up the corporate titles to carry a new one: "The Mushroom Guys."
Pearl-oyster mushrooms growing from the do-it-yourself kit
We donate our used soil to urban farms and nurseriesAfter graduating, we then started Back to the Roots, a name symbolizing sustainability, innovation and social responsibility. What is so unique about Back to the Roots is its completely closed loop system. We first utilized a large waste stream to produce something of value: gourmet oyster mushrooms. The mushrooms were harvested and sold across NorCal Whole Foods Markets. The leftover coffee grounds, enriched by the mushroom growth, turned into premium soil amendment that was then donated to local nurseries and urban farms, giving back to the community from which we gather the coffee grounds from.
Since we launched in 2009, we have diverted and transformed over 50,000 pounds of coffee grounds into a rich soil for local, healthy food and have grown 7,500 pounds of delicious gourmet mushrooms. Starting off as purely an urban mushroom farm, Back to the Roots has recently transformed into an organization dedicated to letting everyone grow their own fresh food right at home…as local as it gets! Our vision is to serve as a standard bearer for innovation and responsibility in our community and inspire others to work towards a more sustainable future. We’re doing this first through our Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Garden.
Eco-friendly packagingThese mushroom-growing kits that we sell on our website are packaged in post-consumer cardboard and printed with soy ink, an environmentally better alternative. The kits arrive in the mail ready to grow: we wanted to create a sustainable product that is easy and simple, so everyone can enjoy growing and eating fresh mushrooms (including kids…who love watching them grow so fast!). The Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Gardens yield multiple crops, and you get up to one pound of delicious pearl-oyster mushrooms in as little as 10 days from your first crop. The soil inside is safe and sustainable too – 100% recycled coffee grounds! And while you may be worrying that the mushrooms taste like coffee, plenty of chefs, like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, can attest to their authentic nutty flavor.
The mushrooms grow right out of the box that comes in the mail
We donate 5% of sales to breast cancer researchWe’re also currently donating 5% of all sales to support local breast cancer awareness organizations - supporting a cause that is close to our hearts (our co-founder, Alex, fought through cancer in high school) and educating the community on the great health benefits that oyster mushrooms have.
Through our mushroom gardens, we hope to encourage people to go "Back to the Roots" of sustainability. If you want to try growing your own delicious mushrooms, use the special discount we’re giving just to Veggie Revolution readers for a limited time: just type in veggierev20 on the checkout page of our website and get 20% off! You can grow up to 1 pound of gourmet mushrooms in as little as 10 days and support breast cancer awareness!
Nikhil and Alex
Back to the Roots, Co-founders
key words: sustainable business sustainable farming gardens gardening pearl oyster mushrooms Easy to Grow Mushroom Garden Back to the Roots Nikhil Arora