BERKELEY, Calif. — College students Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora were just a few months short of careers in corporate banking when they learned during a class lecture that it was possible to grow gourmet mushrooms on leftover coffee grounds. Velez was so struck by the idea that he stayed after class to see whether he could learn more. Well, no, said the professor, he didn't have any extra information. But he could connect Velez with the one other student who'd asked about the concept — Arora.
That was in 2009, and since then the two have become friends and business partners in their company, Back to the Roots (backtotheroots.com). Their Grow-Your-Own Mushroom Garden allows anyone to grow mushrooms off recycled waste. The company now has more than 30 employees and received an Empact100 award from the White House last fall, recognizing it as one of the top 100 entrepreneurial companies in the United States.
The pair started small, experimenting in Velez's fraternity kitchen with 10 test buckets of mushrooms right before spring break.
When they returned, they found that nine of the buckets were washouts. But one was so gorgeous that they took it to Chez Panisse, the famous Berkeley restaurant founded by Alice Waters, a pioneer in the eat fresh, eat local movement, as well as to the local Whole Foods Market. Spurred by the interest that initial crop generated — as well as a $5,000 grant for social innovation from the University of California Berkeley — they came to a decision: Banking could wait.
The first challenge was figuring out how to grow the mushrooms. They spent about eight months "just knee-deep in coffee grounds," says Arora.
Their first sale was 3.14 pounds to Whole Foods. Soon, they were growing 500 pounds a week. That's when they launched the grow-your-own kits.
The kit comes as a box that can be set on a windowsill and just needs to be opened and misted twice a day (mister included). Available at Home Depot, Whole Foods and other stores, as well as online, the kits cost $19.95 and grow up to 1.5 pounds of pearl oyster mushrooms on soil that is 100 percent recycled-plant waste. The company has switched from coffee waste to corn husks, wheat bran and sawdust as the growing medium, and has partnered with Gourmet Mushrooms in Sebastopol, Calif., to produce the kits. The mushrooms take about 10 days to grow, and two crops are guaranteed.