Nikhil and Alex's Roots
From the very beginning, the story of Nikhil Arora and Alejandro “Alex” Velez, founders of Back to the Roots has been one of synchronicity.
“Synchronicity” is a term first used by Psychologist Carl Jung to refer to deeply meaningful coincidences that occur in life. Often, synchronicity manifests as gifts, signs, or blessings that guide us down or let us know we are on the right path.
In 2009, Nikhil and Alex were both senior Business Administration majors at UC Berkeley. Throughout their studies, they had taken many of the same classes; however, they did not meet until their Business Ethics professor played matchmaker. He had brought up the idea of growing mushrooms in coffee in a lecture, and they each emailed him separately wanting to learn more. Growing up in Colombia, which produces 10% of the world’s coffee, Alex was drawn to the concept due to his cultural connection, while Nikhil was equally curious about the sustainability aspect.
“We just hit it off right away and just started kicking around ideas. And honestly, at that point, I think it could have been anything…Right away, we realized we had this connection,” said Nikhil. “We were bouncing off each other's energy. And to this day, we still are. I remember the first time we met, we just started YouTubing videos about how to grow mushrooms and just laughing at all the crazy videos that came up and trying to figure out what to do about this whole thing.”
A month later, Back to the Roots started out as a college mushroom experiment. Nikhil and Alex were able to source mushroom “spawn” (akin to seeds) from legendary mycologist Paul Staments— for culinary mushrooms, not the magical variety. Before leaving for spring break, they started ten buckets of pearl oyster mushrooms in the closet of Alex’s fraternity house. When they returned, they discovered nine of them rotted. However, one bucket did produce a beautiful crop.
The original pearl oyster mushrooms.
A run-in with Alice Waters
Unfamiliar with mushrooms and weary of what they had just grown, they decided they needed the help of an expert to prepare them for eating. Serendipitously, the first person to try them ended up being another legend, Alice Waters, “Slow Food” culinary genius and owner of Chez Panisse.
“We just knew it was a famous restaurant in Berkeley. And we ended up literally walking over this paint bucket of mushrooms. She happened to be in the front of a restaurant. We just walked right up to her and said, ‘Hey, Alice, we're trying to grow these mushrooms on coffee grounds. We just grew some. Would you want to try some?’ And she got super into it, and she's like, ‘That's really cool, come to the back with me.’ And she actually walked us through the back of her restaurant to the kitchen where her head chef, this guy named Cal, and she's like, ‘Cal, do you want to try some of these mushrooms?’”
With the blessing of Alice Waters under their belts, that same day they took the same bucket of mushrooms to the Berkeley Whole Foods on Telegraph Avenue to pitch their product. With a lot of interest and intrigue, they were prompted by the regional Produce Coordinator to “figure things out” and to come back when they did.
Eager to get their mushroom-growing business off the ground, two weeks later they found out out about Berkely’s “Bears Breaking Boundaries Big Ideas Contest.” It is an annual competition aimed to mobilize resources to support UC Berkeley students, and it was also the day before the submission deadline. After pulling an all-nighter, they ended up winning second place and $5,000.
“Because we had won this award, our Chancellor brought it up, and addressed it in his commencement speech. And he was like, ‘We have two kids who are going to be growing mushrooms after they graduate.’ And I remember the whole [audience] just starts cracking up, laughing. And Alex and I look at each other like, what are we getting ourselves into right now?”
Nikhil and Alex in 2009, growing mushrooms in their warehouse.
Creating a zero-waste, regenerative growing system
Ultimately, Nikhil and Alex decided to give up the corporate jobs they had lined up to pursue their passion for growing mushrooms and apply their business skills to developing Back to the Roots. With the seed money they won, they were able to rent a 250 square foot warehouse where they would cultivate the mushrooms.
“The process is you pick up the coffee waste dry, put it in the bags, add the mushroom spawn, and then you leave it in a dark room for roughly two and a half, three weeks. And then, well, mushrooms are pretty fascinating,” said Alex. “They only grow when they think they're going to die. So you have to immediately go from a dark room to a light room. You have to go from a dry room to a really humid room. So with those shocks, mushrooms get scared and they begin to fruit, and that takes about ten days.”
Their business plan was solid. They were able to create three sources of income by collecting grounds from local coffee shops, selling mushrooms to Whole Foods, and also profiting off of the byproduct of the mushroom production – a nutrient-rich substrate – sold to local food producers.
“The cellulose structure of coffee grounds mimics that of a tree on which oyster mushrooms would traditionally grow. And what's crazy, so the whole reason we started this thing off is that traditionally mushrooms are grown on virgin trees being cut down for their logs, mainly overseas, as a substrate to grow mushrooms…We're importing mushrooms that are grown on virgin trees being cut down just for this substrate,” said Nikhil. When you have this whole massive waste stream, millions and millions of pounds in our local communities and we can grow this food locally, that's what inspired the whole thing. [It] was crazy that people were cutting down trees to grow mushrooms when there was so much agricultural waste and kind of this food waste around to do it.”
Not only was their business model sustainable in itself, it also created a closed-loop, regenerative system. The mushrooms were able to utilize what would have been landfill waste, upcycle their nutrients, and ultimately return them back into the production of more nutritious produce.
“This is one of the most premium nutritious soil amendments there is, period,” said Nikhil. “The mushroom mycorrhizae is actually one of the most beneficial things in your garden because it helps your roots uptake nutrients. So imagine adding plant food, which is like the actual nutrients. But what mushroom roots or mycorrhizae do is actually help your plants better extract whatever is in your native soil.”
“We're like, oh, my gosh, this is a gold mine,” said Alex. “Wow. This is so cool. Three revenue streams, zero waste on any of this. And then I was an Excel monkey, and I pulled out Excel, and I modeled it out as Nikhil was talking and [thought] this could be a big business.”
Nikhil hauling away coffee grounds that would be used for mushroom production.
Shifting to mushroom kits
By the first year, they were selling to all of the Whole Foods stores in Northern California. They spent the next few years hustling 10-hour days, doing everything themselves from picking up the coffee to selling the mushrooms at farmers markets. Eventually, they realized they wanted to refocus where they were spending their energy. In 2012, Nikhil and Alex began to focus on selling mushroom kits, allowing people to take part in the experience of cultivating fungi at home. With the help of a specialty farm that could help provide the substrate and spawn, they were able to take their business to the next level.
“It became so clear that with fresh mushrooms, we could have a local farm, sell locally, [and] get our mushrooms into people's homes locally. Or we had this other avenue in which these mushroom kits could be shipped nationwide,” said Alex.
“That was probably the biggest defining moment, I think, in our journey, said Nikhil. “When you realize you don't have to do everything, it's okay not to be the best at everything, and it's okay to let some things go. And that was the hardest thing to let go because that was our identity.”
“It's kind of crazy because he was a competitor to us and he could have easily said, ‘Nope, I'll wait till you guys go out of business because you're not going to be able to scale it the way I can,’” said Alex. “Instead, [our new business partner] basically looked at us and said, ‘You guys have so much energy and you're getting people growing mushrooms. That's a good thing for me. So let me take it off your plate. And you guys focus on what clearly you guys are really good at, which is getting the word out into the world about mushrooms.’”
Interestingly enough, that same year, Alex also became a contestant on the hit TV show, “The Bachelorette.” While he didn’t find true love, he was able to gain additional exposure for the growing brand.
Alex's casting photo for The Bachelorette.
Building upon this momentum, Nikhil and Alex began to innovate additional ways they could help the everyday person get involved in gardening. Inspired by a visit to Growing Powers, a large-scale aquaponics operation that farms tilapia, they decided to scale this model to countertop kits. To make this possible, they contracted help from none other than Johnny Ive, the late Chief Design Officer of Apple Inc., who helped them design the system.
“We put a $100,000 goal up for 30 days, and we ended up hitting $250,000 pre-orders on Kickstarter and another 250K on our website in the following 30 days,” said Nikhil. “After close, we had almost half a million dollars pre-orders off of like a three minute video and a concept. And that's when I think we realized this: Back to the roots – Bigger than mushrooms. It's something else that people want to reconnect with food. And I think that month was our proof point.”
These days, Back to the Roots generates around $100 million in sales annually. They now sell a diverse collection of various grow kits, seeds, and other ready-to-go garden products that make it accessible and easy for anyone to start growing their own food. They also have a campaign called #GrowOneGiveOne, where if anyone posts a photo of what they grew with one of their kits, they'll donate another to the school of their choice. Last year, they reached around 1,300 kids in underfunded schools across the country.
“Now I think what we started realizing with this vision, ultimately, what we were doing is trying to reconnect families and kids to food and where it comes from, it was all a continuum,” said Nikhil. ”The average gardener, whether it's an eight year old or a 68 year old, can both enjoy the brand and they have a smile on their faces for different reasons…We're not telling people to grow all [their] own food. We don't want to come in and say we're going to solve all the world's food shortages. We just want to be that spark of curiosity. And I think in so many ways that's just how we started this company. We were curious.”
Inspired to grow your own mushrooms or aquaponics microgreens at home? Get your kit now at backtotheroots.com