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From gourmet experiment to mushroom moneymaker

May 12, 2011 9:09:57 PM PDT
From coffee grounds to gourmet mushrooms? Sounds impossible? The owners of a mushroom growing company in Oakland thought so too until they figured out how to make it work.

There's probably no better place for two young guys to grow their own mushrooms than in a non-descript West Oakland warehouse. If it is possible for a fungus growing operations to be fancy, this is it.

But it wasn't always that way for the owners of Back to the Roots.

"We started growing this in Alex's fraternity kitchen," Nikhil Arora said.

Arora and Alejandro Velez were two UC Berkeley students who wanted to be investment bankers, but when a professor raised the idea of growing mushrooms from, all things, coffee grounds, they launched a gourmet science experiment.

Of the first 10 batches, only one grew and they were too scared to eat it.

"We took it to Chez Panisse and we had them try it first one to see if they taste good and two we had no idea what they were, we were used to looking at white buttons," Velez said.

But these were no white buttons, they are gourmet oyster mushrooms, part of mushroom kits that now sell in Whole Foods around the country.

They struck a deal with Pete's Coffee and now collect 20,000 pounds of grounds a week...

But as the idea sprouted for the sustainable company that uses waste to grow food, there was one problem -- what to do with all of their own waste?

They tried to do what any college kids would try to do -- sell it on Craigslist. As it turns out there's actually a huge market out there for mushroom soil. Now they sell that too.

Their business and their product continue to grow. Their next venture is hops that will soon become shitakes.

"That's our biggest goal, to show people that you can create a successful company, but still create a positive impact in the community too," Arora said.

It's proof that one man's trash is another man's mushroom.


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