When Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez launched Back To The Roots (BTTR), their venture growing mushrooms from spent coffee grounds was fueled by the same sort of astonishment you might remember from elementary school, the first time you saw a green sprout emerge from a dirt-filled cup. It was that simple I grew this! feeling that spurred Arora and Velez to proudly show their initial crop to Whole Foods, and eventually build a company that allows just about anyone, by using BTTR’s mushroom kits, to experience the thrill of growing food from what would otherwise have been waste.
Having bootstrapped the young company from an experiment in Velez’s frat-house basement to a brand that now appears at chains like Nordstrom, Whole Foods, Home Depot, and soon, Toys R Us, perhaps the next logical step in the evolution of BTTR is fish poo.
BTTR is looking to get into the aquaponics business and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the $100,000 machine mold and minimum production costs for a table-top aquaponics garden. In their model, fish live in a three gallon tank, excreting waste, which fertilizes the water, which in turn safely feeds herbs and vegetables growing in a garden deck above. All of the nutrients needed for the plants come from the fish, and the plants keep the water clean. It’s a closed loop that provides you with a pet and veggies for lunch.
Much like with their mushroom kits, the aquaponic garden offers a way for people to edge back toward growing their own food. Marc Ecko, CEO of Artists & Instigators is an advisor to BTTR and finds that because we have become so detached from how our food is grown, customers can find something “sublime and magical” in watching mushrooms grow. “It conjures that latent child-like eureka thing that delights us all but we too often repress. That’s the promise of the BTTR brand.”
In testing their new aquaponic garden and showing it off in classrooms, Arora says they’ve seen kids laugh when the fish do their business, but also learn that waste is an important part of the symbiotic process. It’s a lesson the rest of us could learn from. “You grow up, and you get afraid of it,” Arora adds, “but there’s so much value in waste.” Spoken like a true upcycler.
Design matters, perhaps more so when your product is based on waste. “It’s something we learned from the mushroom kits,” says Arora. “We started off selling the mushroom kits in these big basketball-sized bags of fungus, and no one wanted them at all.” He laughs. During development and testing for the aquaponic garden, BTTR went through a similar process. “You should have seen what this thing started out looking like! It was big and bulky—a crazy looking thing.” But streamlining, making it neatly and attractively fit on a countertop lowers barriers. “People forget that it’s fish waste and instead say, ‘Oh, it’s so cool.’” Their focus shifts to the fresh herbs and veggies, readily fertilized, waiting to be eaten.
For Ecko though, it’s not aesthetics that draws customers to BTTR. “In a digital world, that is too consumer with stuff you can't really touch or feel, they take us to the sandbox.” It’s about rediscovering the everyday miracle of food.
BTTR finds the promise of the aquaponic garden is its permanence. A teacher might use one of their mushroom kits for a month in class, but the garden can offer important lessons year-round and year after year. It’s also another chance to spread around that fulfilling sense of I grew this.
“We’ve been doing this [testing the gardens] for eight months, and it still blows my mind when I see the first one sprouting—out of rock. It’s just crazy. I get so excited about it, but imagine a little kid seeing that.” With a bit of the wonder that dwells in any farmer, Arora adds, “They’re never going to forget that for the rest of their lives.”