Grads turn coffee into gourmet mushrooms

November 5, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Two new graduates from UC Berkeley's Business School are trying to turn coffee grounds into a high demand food for local consumers. But the venture doesn't stop there, it gives back to the community as well.

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What do mushrooms and a pile of used coffee grounds have in commmon?

"Mushrooms biologically grow really well in hardwoods, and so, coffee acts like a hardwood biologically, and we can grow them pretty well in that," said BTTR Ventures co-founder Nikhill Arora.

The mushrooms aren't caffeinated produce, they just absorb all the coffee grounds' nutrients. So, why in the world are two new graduates from UC Berkeley's Business School, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, growing mushrooms for a living?

"I was a business-political science student. Alex was business-education. So neither of us had any background in mycology, but I think we both have the passion to do something -- one, on our own , and two, that kind of looked out for the community and had a social conscious as well," said Arora.

The pair was inspired after hearing a Cal guest lecturer talk about mushroom-growing as an innovative way to fight malnutrition.

"We heard of a fact that a lot of women in urban areas in Colombia and East Africa were using the coffee pulp to grow gourmet mushrooms," said Velez.

Seeded by a $5,000 social innovation grant from Cal, they researched and launched a for-profit social venture called BTTR Ventures; BTTR stands for "Back To The Roots." The goal is to be a sustainable company focused on social responsibility. They're accomplishing this by diverting one of America's largest waste streams out of Bay Area landfills.

"We realized America is like absolutely addicted to coffee," said Arora.

So it dawned on them they could help the environment, at least locally, by collecting a ton of coffee waste a week from local shops like Peets Coffee and Whole Foods' Alegro Cafe. And then at a local warehouse in Emeryville, a small crew of employees packs sterile bags full of grounds, growing hundreds of pounds of gourmet oyster mushrooms a week. After harvesting, they're sold at local farmers markets and grocery stores.

A Whole Foods store in Berkeley is one of seven in the Bay Area that buys the BTTR oyster mushrooms. Now each store orders about 15 pounds per week and apparently they've been pretty popular because the last delivery already sold out.

But this is about more than growing mushrooms -- the post-mushroom coffee grounds are then re-used as compost, which is sold to consumers, and some is also donated to local school gardens and non-profit urban farms. In its first year, BTTR Ventures is already growing a profit and making a difference in the community.

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