By Sylvia Maria Gross
Alex Velez and Nikhil Arora were classmates in business school at Cal-Berkeley when they heard a professor mention the idea of using coffee grounds to grow mushrooms.
The two men were intrigued.
So they got together to test the idea. Using some buckets in Velez’s fraternity kitchen, they tried the idea out. Only one bucket sprouted, but a handful of oyster mushrooms were enough to germinate the idea of an urban farm – of growing food from society’s waste.
And they’ve made some serious money since then.
Velez and Arora now collect almost 8,000 pounds of coffee grounds each week from local shops like Peets Coffee and Tea and Starbucks. The two business partners turn those grounds into hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms, which are sold at various stories like Whole Foods Markets. Once the coffee grounds are used for the second time, they’re donated as compost to local schools and community gardens.
The business expanded when Velez and Arora began packaging kits: bags of moldy coffee grounds that allow people to grow their own oyster mushrooms at home. Customers just mist the package with water, and in 10 days, the bulbous fungus is ready to eat.
After a year and a half, their business, Back to the Roots or BTTR, has six employees, including several members of Velez’s family. The company’s 2010 revenues were expected to reach $500,000.