Stories - The Hustle

How One Professor’s Lecture Launched a Food Movement

Written by Kamran Rosen | Sep 19, 2020 4:40:58 AM

What are the odds?

That two college seniors were a) paying attention in a business ethics class, and b) simultaneously heard their college professor say something noteworthy? Seems a little surreal, but that’s the true story of how co-founders Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Ahora started their company: Back to the Roots.

Here’s what the professor said:

Mushrooms could be grown entirely on used coffee grounds.

This one remark (probably said in passing) prompted Nikhil and Alejandro’s curiosity about growing food from waste. They collected used coffee grounds from local coffee shops, took them back to Alejandro’s frat house, and put their professor’s lesson to the test: Can we really grow mushrooms from the discarded grounds of yesterday’s French Roast?

As it turns out, yes. Yes we can.

With just 10 paint buckets full of local coffee waste – and copious hours of research on YouTube – the duo produced their first crop of oyster mushrooms.

They were ecstatic, but the two soon had to solve for a completely different problem: would anyone actually buy these?

Well, they were gonna find out. The guys took their product straight to Chez Panisse, where esteemed organic chef Alice Waters became the first to formally sample their product.

The verdict: the mushrooms were delicious.

Word of “the mushroom guys” spread fast, and with it came lots of demand for their product. Beginning with a deal at the local Whole Foods, the duo quickly expanded, and their first product, the Mushroom Mini Farm, has now been grown in nearly 1,000,000 households.

Within six years, Back to the Roots launched 18 products in over 14,000 stores nationwide, and has garnered attention from Martha Stewart, Forbes, and even President Obama.

Since growing their first crop of mushrooms in a fraternity kitchen, Nikhil and Alejandro’s curiosity has evolved into a passion for “undoing” food, and reconnecting families with where their food comes from.

The two are hoping to spark curiosity about food in others just like they experienced in that college classroom. By providing real alternatives to processed food-stuff, they are hoping millennials will continue to demand more from food companies.

“We believe the future of food goes beyond natural and organic — it’s built on radical transparency,” say the co-founders. “Our R&D team isn’t food scientists in lab coats, it’s our grandparents. We want to create food that they’ll recognize, and bring it to a new generation through fun, playful, and sustainable product design.”