Imagine growing a mushroom from used coffee grounds. Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora did just that as Cal undergrads in 2009, experimenting with the procedure in their fraternity house kitchen, and it worked well enough to inspire them to launch a company. Two years later, Back to the Roots’ business selling organic oyster mushroom-growing kits to home consumers is growing quickly, and thanks to a $50,000 grant from MillerCoors, it recently moved from its cramped Emeryville quarters to a 10,000 square-foot warehouse on Adeline Street in West Oakland.
The money was awarded to Velez and Arora as the grand prize in the ten-year-old MillerCoors Urban Entrepreneurs national business plan competition. “Back to the Roots turns one of the largest waste streams in America — the tons of coffee ground waste generated daily — into a highly-demanded, nutritious, and valuable food product: gourmet mushrooms,” contest organizers wrote in an online statement.
According to Velez, the prize money will allow the company to complete repairs and renovations to the new building that will translate to improved infrastructure and inventory capacity, with the goal of supporting national sales through the Home Shopping Network and the East Coast’s Wegmans Supermarkets.
Back to the Roots expects to divert one million pounds of coffee grounds from the waste stream in 2011, and estimates that its kits, which are currently available for sale online and at Whole Foods and Peet’s Coffee and Tea stores, help customers grow more than 400,000 pounds of fresh mushrooms every year. Recently, the company also started employing used beer hops in its kits.
A dedication ceremony for the new facility took place on May 12. According to a press release, more than 300 Bay Area residents and community leaders attended. No word on whether Carson Daly and Alice Waters, both of whom have touted Back to the Roots’ products, were able to make it.