Growing Your Food--Without a Backyard

By Christina Scotti Small Business FOXBusiness

Urban Mushroom Farmers

The Back to the Roots co-founders started with mushrooms kits-and they are hoping that's just the beginning of their food revolution

Urban mushroom farmers. That isn’t a phrase you hear that often – if at all. But that’s exactly what entrepreneurs Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez are – and they are hoping that other people will want to connect to food directly and become urban farmers, too.

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“We want to educate people that you don’t need a backyard to grow your own food,” said Back to the Roots co-founder, Alejandro Velez. 

The first product from the company is a mushroom kit, which is made from old coffee grounds. The “grow-your-own-mushroom-garden” runs about $19.95 per kit, and the co-founders say after 10 days and some watering, customers can grow up to a pound and a half of pearl oyster mushrooms.

“I think taking coffee waste and being able to grow food, something about that just resonated with me,” said Velez. “Turning waste upside down and instead of it calling waste call it a wasted resource, I was digging it.”

Other people seem to be digging it, too. So far, they’ve sold over 250,000 kits and gotten a couple hundred thousand dollars in grants—including one from Whole Foods, which carries the product in stores across the U.S.

“I came to the realization that life is pretty sacred... and the fact that you have to make something of yourself now, that you don't have an infinite amount of time to do it.”

- Back to the Roots co-founder, Alejandro Velez

The two 25-years-old UC Berkeley grads started the company three years ago after hearing a professor talk about the idea of growing mushrooms from recycled coffee grounds. But initially, they were selling the mushrooms wholesale.

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“Some people were telling us to just continue to sell these gourmet mushrooms wholesale and some were saying to go for the mushroom kit and we were just at this in-between stage,” said Arora. “But we ended up going with our gut, believing that we could build a national brand and movement with these kits and since then, it’s been awesome.”

Now, over 2,000 retailers are now carrying Back to the Roots grow-your-own mushrooms kits—and the entrepreneurs behind this startup are hoping that mushrooms are only the beginning of their food revolution, with plans to expand beyond mushrooms in the coming year. 

Velez, who had a life-changing experience when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of fifteen (he is now cancer-free), said the disease changed his perspective on life.

“Going through the disease was one of the best things that has happened to me because it really taught me to take life full force, and that translates into entrepreneurship,” said Velez. “I came to the realization that life is pretty sacred and you can die at any moment made it very real -- and the fact that you have to make something of yourself now, that you don't have an infinite amount of time to do it.”

Velez also said something else became very apparent while he was sick: “While you’re working hard, you also have fun… because what’s the point if you’re not.”


Follow Christina on Twitter @ChristinaScotti


Six Shooter with the Back to the Roots co-founders

1. What is your favorite quote and why?

Nikhil: "Look to this day for it is life. In its brief course lie all the realities and truths of existence. The joy of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of well-lived makes every yesterday a memory of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day."-Ancient Sanskrit proverb

That quote just reminds me every time of what life and work is all about -- enjoying every moment doing something you're passionate about with people you love. That quote reminds me each day how grateful I am that I can wake up every morning and be excited about what I'm working on and who I'm doing it with.

Alejandro: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”- Martin Luther King Jr.

He's not only a great leader but this is so true about entrepreneurship as well!

2. What makes a business successful? (No clichés allowed)

Nikhil: Passionate team. If you have a team that truly believes in what they're doing every single second, and is inspired by the company's vision and values you'll be successful. True passion is so rare these days, and I think it attracts support and positive energy that will take your business to the next level. Bleeding passion for your company all day and all night is what takes. 

Alejandro: Love. We can choose to look at life, or business -- at the simplest form in a binary fashion -- love or fear. If we choose love and persuade and influence others to look at decisions and interactions and everything from love, the business will succeed & ultimately customers will be happier and the world will be a better place.

3. Describe yourself in three words.

Nikhil: Passionate. Dedicated. Happy.

Alejandro: Curious. Happy. Immature.

4. Is being an entrepreneur about taking risks?

Nikhil: 100%. Being an entrepreneur is all about building your wings on the way down! Things happen fast, change quick, and you got to make decisions without complete information all the time. Each decision you make as a startup is a risk, specially at an early stage with little financial and other resources to cushion a mistake - but you have to make decisions quick, trust your gut, team, and assumptions, and work as fast as possible afterwards to make that decision workout before it's too late! 

Alejandro: Nothing as an entrepreneur is perfectly solvable. Intended strategies are almost always completely wrong. Otherwise, somebody else would have already done it. So what happens is you end up playing a numbers or probability game and you will still have to feel comfortable making decisions with confidence even though there is likelihood of being wrong. That to me is entrepreneurship.

5. As of today, Back to the Roots is selling what is essentially a mushroom kit. It’s very simple. Why did you think this could be a million-dollar idea?

Alejandro: I never thought it would be. I still don’t think it is. It is what this mushroom represents to our customers, to our team and to me. Because an idea is never a million dollar idea--you create it. I think before we know it we've spearheaded a billion dollar movement.  

6. What are the plans for the future?

Nikhil: Hustling and being passionate about making food personal again! Nothing short of turning Back to the Roots into a household name.

Alejandro: Growing the movement of connecting people to food again.