It 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 entirely on recycled coffee grounds.
We 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 the land fill. 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.
The 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.”
After 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.
We are on track to divert over 1 million lbs of coffee grounds in 2011 and have helped families grow over 250,000 lb of fresh oyster mushrooms right at the home. 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! We’re doing this first through our Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Garden.
We’ve also just recently launched a new Facebook campaign, incorporating education into our framework. If you post a picture of your fully grown kit in hand on our Facebook Page, we will donate a kit to an elementary school of your choice. We’d love to show kids the fun in growing and eating fresh!
The Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Gardens, sold on our website and at over 250 Whole Foods across the nation, are packaged in post-consumer cardboard and printed with soy ink, an environmentally better alternative. Our mushroom 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 & eating fresh (including kids…who love watching them grow so fast!). The mushroom kits yield multiple crops, and you get up to one pound of delicious pearl oyster mushroom in as little as 10 days from your first crop. The soil inside is safe & 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.
Through our Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Garden, 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 Got2BeGreen readers: just type in Mushrooms4me10 on the checkout page of our website and get 10% off!
Nikhil & Alex
Back to the Roots, Co-founders