Rewind: Spring 2009 and two seniors at Cal were sitting in a lecture for their business ethics course. Both had offers from Corporate America in investment banking and consulting. In this lecture they heard that 7 million tons of coffee are produced around the world. With only 1% ending up in the cup, the rest is destined for the landfill. What a waste.
Somewhere in that lecture Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez also learned that gourmet mushrooms can be grown on recycled coffee grounds. They mused over the possibility of diverting this waste stream into producing gourmet mushrooms, and started to learn how to actually grow mushrooms from coffee grounds. As business majors they wanted to explore if this idea could work as the basis of a full scale social venture.
Arora and Velez cruised the Berkeley coffee store and cafes collecting their used coffee grounds. Out of the first 10 buckets in which they planted, mushrooms only grew in one. They took that batch to the local Berkeley Whole Foods, and received enough positive feedback to create a plan. They submitted their business proposal to “Bears Breaking Boundaries,” an entrepreneurial competition sponsored by the UC Berkeley Chancellor and received $5,000 seed (or should I say plug) money.
The two grow gourmet pearl-oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds, and sell kits to consumers who are inspired to try for themselves.
After graduation, their business, Back to the Roots, was born and their mushrooms are found on the shelves of Whole Foods. But this is not just about business or the initiative of a couple of smart students (though this is pretty awesome) , their business is an example of sustainability and social responsibility. Best of all is their utilization of a large waste stream to produce something nutritional and valuable. Even the rich soil that is a by product of their production line is donated to community gardens, local nurseries and urban farms – a growing phenomenon in Berkeley.
Then they took the principle one step further. “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.
These 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 box arrives through the post and the mushrooms are ready to grow … right out of the box. They even donate 5% of sales to breast cancer research and a further 5% of all sales to support local breast cancer awareness organizations – co-founder, Alex, fought through cancer in high school – and educating the community on the great health benefits of oyster mushrooms.”
Finally, this is really cool:
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com