Sitting in a lecture hall at UC Berkley with semester of college left, students Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora were on the fast track to graduation, a bright future ahead of them in the corporate world of investment banking and consulting. During class, their professor mentioned how it was possible to grow mushrooms from old coffee grounds and suddenly : Boom!- an idea had sparked.
The thought of turning waste (hundreds of pounds of recycled coffee grounds) into food (delicious, home-grown oyster mushrooms) was extremely intriguing to Velez and Arora and within weeks, their idea was swiftly put into action in the kitchen of Alex's fraternity house. After six months of trial and error, their attempt of creating mushrooms from recycled coffee grounds was a success. Velez and Arora took their one small bucket of oyster mushrooms directly to Alice Water's restaurant, Chez Panisse, an eatery specifically famous for sustainable cooking and using and locally-grown ingredients. Unsure if the mushrooms were rightfully tasty, the chef and Waters herself tried the mushrooms, loved them and the rest is history.
With a $5,000 grant from the UC Berkley Chancellor for social innovation, Velez and Arora abandoned the path of corporate and industrial work and began the journey into a new career of urban mushroom farming. In the last year, their original idea and passion for turning waste into food has evolved into a brand and more specifically, a business they call Back to the Roots. When they first started, the boys were working out of a 1,000 square foot space with only a few employees and now, not only has their staff tripled in size but they are working from a warehouse that encapsulates 10,000 square footage.
From the beginning, back in 2009, the entrepreneurs set a personal goal for themselves : by 2011, they wanted to collect, divert and re-use 1 million pounds of coffee grounds from Peet's Coffee & Tea. Now, a year later, the personal goal has been slashed and they have created "grow-your-own-mushrooms" kits that are being sold at 300 Whole Foods nationwide. For 2012, the gang is on track to collect, divert and reuse 3.6 million pounds of coffee grounds!
The process of turning coffee grounds into mushrooms begins with something called inoculation. The mixed coffee grounds are first pressed down by barrel-like tubs to get the right amount of moisture that can be put into a bag sealed with mushroom spawn. Then comes the incubation process where the bag of coffee grounds and mushroom spawn sits for a period of three weeks. Within a matter of days, the color of the grounds begin to change and the black, fluffy texture takes on a white hue which is in fact, the mushroom mycelium growing from the spawn. As soon as that appears, the bag is re-sealed and packaged for retail sale.
The mission behind Back to the Roots has been to create a unique and sustainable project for their customers and now, by helping families grow over 250,000 pounds of fresh food at home, their mission is visibly clear. The movement, inspiration and education provided to not only families, but local schools as well has been life-changing. For Velez and Arora, perhaps the biggest pleasure comes from showing families, people and children alike how simple it can be to grow your own food. Combining education with food, coffee grounds with mushrooms and an idea that spawned itself into a full-fledged business - what can be better?
Take a look at how the mushrooms grow...