UPDATE: Nikhil has offered to give away a Back To The Roots Oyster Mushroom Growing Kit free to one lucky reader! There are three ways to enter – use all of them for triple entries!
First way to enter: go to the Back To The Roots Facebook Page and like the page. Leave a comment below indicating that you Like BTTR. If you are already a Facebook fan of BTTR, so much the better! Leave a comment on this blog post saying so.
Second way to enter: follow BTTR on Twitter. If you already a Twitter follower, so much the better! Leave a comment on this blog post telling me that you follow them. If you want to be really super fantastic, RT this post or something else you like from NWE – I’d sure appreciate it, but not necessary for an entry. :)
Third way to enter: leave a comment telling me your favorite recipe (descriptive title only is fine – you don’t need to include a full recipe) that includes mushrooms as a key ingredient.
In order to qualify for multiple entries, please don’t tell me that you Like BTTR and Follow them and make mushroom pizza (yum!) all in one comment – they really need to be in separate comments.
The giveaway is open until midnight PST on Tuesday, June 14th. I’ll announce the lucky winner on Thursday June 16th, and share my recipe for Duck Egg Fettuccine with Oyster Mushrooms and Fresh Herbs.
Thanks so much, and good luck to everyone!
And now, back to the original interview:
The story behind these kits is pretty interesting. Nikhil and co-founder Alejandro Velez were in college and on-track to become investment bankers but ended up urban mushroom farmer entrepreneurs. They started with one successfully grown bucket of oyster mushrooms and now sell fresh mushrooms and mushrooms kits in Whole Foods stores around the country.
In the process they’ve upcycled hundreds of thousands of pounds of coffee grounds into the grow-media for the mushrooms, and further upcycled the spent grow-media into a mushroom compost soil amendment. They’ve also supported exploratory education and school gardens through donations of their kits and compost to elementary school classrooms nationwide.
After I tried out the kit (which is fantastic, but that’s another blog post) I had to know more, and Nikhil was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.
NWE: You were business students at UC Berkley with plans to go into investment banking. How did you become urban mushroom farmers and what was the reaction from your peers when you started your mushroom business?
Nikhil: It all started in a business ethics class of our senior year. Our professor, Alan Ross, had mentioned that gourmet mushrooms could be grown on recycled coffee grounds. Neither Alex or I knew each other, but we both separately contacted our professor to get more information. He hooked us up, and from there we started talking about how we could make this work.
After doing some research, we found out less then 1% of the coffee beans actually ends up in your morning cup of joe, the rest is tossed. We thought about how addicted America is to coffee, and how we could help divert this waste into something usable. It just so happens that the coffee grounds when condensed is a perfect medium for oyster mushrooms to grow on, acting similar to something like wood.
So although we had “secure” jobs coming out of college, we knew this was an idea we just couldn’t give up. There’s a life time to work in the corporate office, but as entrepreneurs there is only the here and now when you have a great idea.
When we grew our first batch of the mushrooms, we didn’t have extensive knowledge of the whole process, just some research. We threw together some ingredients and left it at Alex’s fraternity house. So yeah, I guess you could say people were giving us some pretty funny looks when they found out we were growing mushrooms out of a fraternity. But since then, we’ve definitely grown a lot, so people are a lot more surprised and interested when they hear about what we’re doing than skeptical.
NWE: The “Big Dog” food companies like General Mills and Kellogg’s own many of the brands consumers think of as sustainable and organic. In light of that, what do you see as the role of small business entrepreneurship in creating truly sustainable food systems?
Nikhil: While it is definitely important for big food companies like General Mills and Kellogg’s to promote sustainability and eating healthy and natural, it is just as important, if not more, for small businesses to take the lead in creating truly sustainable food systems. As a small business, we have the advantage of having a blank canvas. There are so many opportunities out there to create partnerships and to find innovative ways to sustainability, and we can take full advantage of that without losing too much.
Small businesses therefore, have the ability to move quickly and have a large impact. A lot of those bigger companies have to work with traditional systems they have built their companies around, so often times do not have nearly the same flexibility.
NWE: I understand controlling contamination is a big challenge in growing mushrooms. Can a householder hoping to maximize their production of mushrooms use your kit to inoculate larger quantities of their own coffee grounds?
Nikhil: Though we don’t recommend it, it’s definitely possible as once you’re done with the kits and have grown all the mushrooms from them; the leftover mycelium (roots) are still very healthy! If you want to get creative / experimentative, I’d mix it in to the new coffee grounds at a 1:4 ratio (old mycelium to new coffee grounds). We’ll be launching a DIY Kit soon though that’s specifically geared to people who brew their own coffee soon…stay tuned!
NWE: I saw on your Facebook Page that you are beginning to grow shiitake mushrooms as well. What plans do you have to expand your business and the varieties of mushrooms you offer?
Nikhil: Yes we are! We are currently testing a bunch of shiitake kits and are continually trying to create the best kit possible. We are also currently experimenting with other waste sources to grow our mushrooms off of such as soy castings and barley waste. The possibilities are really endless, which is what is so exciting about all of this. As far as other varieties goes, we are definitely planning to offer more in the future. Just going one step at a time, and shiitakes are what we are trying to tackle now!
NWE: Can you speak to the relationship you have with Whole Foods Markets and what role they’ve played in your rapid growth?
Nikhil: Whole Foods has been instrumental in our growth! They were the first ones who believed in our idea…we literally walked into our Berkeley Whole Foods with a paint bucket of mushrooms and the guys there all became really supportive. We were soon introduced to the regional produce coordinator, Randy Ducummon, who really believed in our vision as well since Day 1, and he’s been one of our closest advisers and mentors since. We started at one Berkeley Whole Foods, and just last summer, went national with the mushroom kits! They also have a local forager program, run by Harv Singh here in NorCal, that’s awesome in finding new, small companies and helping them scale. They also gave us a local producer loan (low interest) for $25,000 last summer to grow our business.
NWE: You have been very supportive of education and donate mushroom kits to elementary school classrooms. Did anything specific inspire you to begin this practice?
Nikhil: One of our biggest goals with this company is to really to inspire the next generation to think creatively about waste, sustainably, and where our food comes from! With the kit, which grows in as little as 10 days, it’s an awesome way to get kids excited about growing their own food (compared to tomatoes for instance, which take 90 days to grow!) Alex also started a 1-on-1 mentorship organization while at Cal, which I currently sit on the Board of, so education is a key part of our vision and mission for Back to the Roots overall.
We hope that through our new campaign, in which if someone posts a picture of the kit they’ve grown on our Facebook page we donate a kit to an elementary school of their choice, we can really take this movement beyond our company and start getting this message of zero-waste and sustainable, healthy food in front of thousands of more schools!
Thanks Nikhil, your kit is fantastic and lots of fun!
I’m planning on doing a more detailed review of the BTTR kit, but the short version is: the kits work exactly as promised, they are a lot of fun, and they would make great presents for kids. I’d say science and nature-minded kids from about age 4 and up would love seeing how the mushrooms grow.
Back To The Roots is offering a 10% discount on their kits if you use this code: mushrooms4me10. If you get one of their kits, don’t forget to post a picture to their Facebook page and they’ll send a kit to an elementary school classroom for free!
Straight up disclosure: I was sent a free kit to review, and another for my daughter’s 1st grade classroom to try out. I was uncompensated for my review, and my views and opinions are my own.