GOOD

Upcycling's Upshot: How Urban Mushroom Farmers Turned Scavenging into a Business

“Our whole company is literally built on trash.”

In domestic relationships, one of the quickest ways to butter up your partner is by taking out the trash. In business, removing festering piles of waste also makes you the sort of person who gets missed when you're not around.


In 2009, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez were recent graduates of the University of California at Berkeley who had both been offered positions in consulting and investment banking. Yet both were stuck on an idea they came across in their business ethics class: Gourmet mushrooms grow and flourish in recycled coffee grounds; thus, waste from one industry could be fertile ground for another. Trash, if not treasure, could be a sustainable and cost-free raw material.

The two set to experimenting with growing mushrooms in coffee grounds in the basement of Velez’s fraternity. They managed one crop in an old paint bucket and immediately charged out to their local Whole Foods, where they showed their harvest to the first person they saw in the produce department: “Hey, look, we grew these mushrooms.”

The two were sent from department to department by managers who were curious—and more than a little bemused—by the two college kids and their bucket of mushrooms. Two weeks later, they received a call from the regional produce manager for Northern California Whole Foods stores. They were told that if they could figure out how to do it on a larger scale, “we can blow this up in stores.”

So Arora and Velez turned down their corporate job offers and, learning from YouTube videos, trained themselves as urban mushroom farmers. “We both believe to our core that business doesn’t have to be something where for-profit is bad and nonprofit is good,” Arora says. “It’s an awesome tool, if leveraged correctly, to really make a quick difference.”

But if the pair were going to make a real go of upcycling coffee grounds and establishing themselves as gourmet mushroom suppliers, they would need more than what they could collect on foot from local coffee shops. At a community event, Arora and Velez met Shirin Moayyad, director of purchasing for Peet’s Coffee.

“Alex came tearing after me, calling, ‘Wait, wait, wait, can I speak to you?’” Moayyad remembers. Arora and Velez wanted an introduction to Peet’s business, because as Moayyad explains, “you can’t just walk in and say ‘give me your grounds.’”

Peet’s stores already had arrangements with waste management to dispose of the pounds and pounds of coffee grounds produced every day. Says Moayyad, “We would pay for waste collection, so why not pay them?” So Arora and Velez’s new company, Back To The Roots, started being paid to pick up one of their main raw materials.

For Peet’s, it was a no-brainer. The baristas hated dealing with the waste and came to greet the mushroom growers warmly. The company had always given away some grounds to gardeners in the summer for compost, but, “if you can produce something, create a locavore movement from it, it’s obviously so much more positive,” Moayyad says.

Back To The Roots began including Peet’s coupons in its grow-your-own-mushroom kits; Peet’s sold the kits in its cafes. Products from the two companies are shelved side-by-side in Northern California Whole Foods stores. What started as a small-scale farm supplying local restaurants and a few groceries expanded to include the mushroom kits, which now sell at 1,000 retail centers nationally. Since its founding, Back To The Roots has repurposed 1 million pounds of coffee grounds. After one year, the company had revenue of a quarter-million dollars; last year, it increased that number to $1.4 million. The company forecasts $5 million in revenue this year.

But all that success also meant that Arora and Velez had their own waste-stream problems. The heaps of coffee grounds they were using in-house to grow gourmet mushrooms for local use became a pile of leftover reused coffee grounds that sat in a growing mountain behind their warehouse. Their landlord gave them two weeks to clear the stuff.

So they did what most of us do when in doubt—put it on Craigslist. Community gardeners showed up in droves, telling Velez and Arora “I don’t think you understand the power of what you can do with the mycelium, the mushroom root, after you’re done.” Mushroom substrate is perfect for composting. Soon Back To The Roots was on back-order for their own waste, and trash, once again, had become somebody else’s treasure.

Max Cadji, who runs the garden for People’s Grocery in West Oakland, was among the composters who turned up. He had a history coordinating a small composting operation at UC Davis. “I just gave them some advice on testing, making, and balancing pH,” he says. “They figured out the rest.”

Back To The Roots developed an all-natural, sustainable, soil amendment entirely from the company’s waste, and this spring is introducing its organic MycoRootBoost fertilizer—made from mushroom mycelium—in Home Depot and Whole Foods stores. “It’s this kind of big, organic, sustainable counterpart to the chemical MiracleGro things out there,” Arora says.

In many ways, Back To The Roots still operates like a startup. Despite having a staff of 22 (and still hiring), the partners remain the face of the company, spending considerable time standing behind mushroom kit displays and proselytizing about the benefits of food grown from another industry’s by-product.

And with a depression-era grandmother’s eye for “waste not, want not” they’ve found ways to integrate reuse into things as mundane as their retail display areas. As the kits took off, Back To The Roots opted to break down and repurpose wooden pallets for their growing numbers of display units. “We pretty much tapped out all the pallets in Oakland,” Arora says, so they turned to their local Home Depot, which had begun selling their mushroom kits. “Our display units in Home Depot are now made from their own spent waste.”

The staff of Back To The Roots, like its owners, are largely ex-corporate types—investment bankers and financial advisors turned mushroom farmers. In a more metaphorical way, the company is finding other ways to repurpose—giving people a new direction in their working lives. “Our last ten years have been characterized by a lot of economic and political chaos creating a sense among us that ‘there has to be a better way to do this,’” Velez says.

“This whole country revolves around use and just throwing things away,” Arora adds. “Everything’s just one-time use. That’s not going to last. It’s not sustainable.”

The two speak in terms of value, the value in things that otherwise go to waste. In Back To The Roots’ warehouse, even the racks where they store their mushroom kits come from somebody else’s waste. Diverting all that has built the business. Says Arora with the pride of a true scavenger, “Our whole company is literally built on trash.”

Photo courtesy of Spencer Brown

Articles
via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics
via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

Lifestyle

Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dropped a bombshell on Tuesday, announcing it had over 900 emails that White House aide Stephen Miller sent to former Breitbart writer and editor Katie McHugh.

According to the SPLC, in the emails, Miller aggressively "promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof's murderous rampage."

Keep Reading Show less
Politics
via Twitter / Bye,Bye Harley Davidson

The NRA likes to diminish the role that guns play in fatal shootings by saying, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

Which is the same logic as, "Hammers don't build roofs, people build roofs." No duh. But it'd be nearly impossible to build a roof without a hammer.

So, shouldn't the people who manufacture guns share some responsibility when they are used for the purpose they're made: killing people? Especially when the manufacturers market the weapon for that exact purpose?

Keep Reading Show less
Business