Bay Area Mushroom Entrepreneurs; Winner of the $100 CSN Card & A New Giveaway

Two UC Berkeley business school grads and their innovative mushroom company. (Photo courtesy of Back to the Roots)

When Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez graduated from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business last year, they thought they would become investment bankers.

Instead, they invested in themselves, becoming farmers whose innovative way of growing mushrooms ended up, well, mushrooming beyond their wildest dreams.

Now their small start-up company, Back to the Roots, produces about 500 pounds of fresh oyster mushrooms a week — all grown in recycled Peet’s coffee grounds (10,000 pounds a week of it to be exact).

It was during their last semester in school when Arora and Velez figured out it was possible to grow mushrooms this way.

Nurtured on the grounds of Peet’s fine brew, these mushrooms have won over the likes of Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Bay Area Whole Foods stores, which sell them for upwards of $10.99 a pound.

This year, they also launched the “Easy to Grow Mushroom Garden” ($19.95), which allows folks to grow up to a pound of fresh oyster mushrooms at home in as little as 10 days. You get multiple crops from it, too. Just set it on a kitchen window sill and mist twice a day. Just think: a project to amaze the kids and a way to have fresh, gourmet mushrooms at your fingertips for cooking up delicious meals. The kits, which come complete with a mister and recycled coffee grounds, are available at Whole Foods markets.

Pasta with homegrown oyster mushrooms. (Photo courtesy of Back to the Roots)

Through the holidays, 5 percent of all sales from the kits will be donated to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast cancer awareness. It’s a cause near and dear to Velez, who is a cancer survivor.

Contest: One lucky Food Gal reader will get the chance to win a free kit. The contest is open to anyone in the United States. Deadline to enter is midnight PST Dec. 4. Winner will be announced Dec. 6.

How to win? Just tell me your most memorable experience with mushrooms — be it a dish you tasted for the first time or an adventure you had involving them in some way. The best answer will win the kit.

To get you started, here’s my own answer to that question:

When I was a food writer and editor at the San Jose Mercury News, I once assigned a colleague to go mushroom foraging with trained mycologists. My colleague got so into the assignment that even after he had finished writing the story, he would go hunting for wild chanterelles on his own. One day, he proudly handed me a small bag of them as a gift. I remember showing my boss the golden orange mushrooms. Half-jokingly, she said, “OK, when you eat these, just be sure to leave at least one on your kitchen counter. That way, if you don’t show up to work tomorrow, we’ll know what happened to you and at least have one specimen to give to authorities!” Needless to say, I sauteed those mushrooms in butter later that night, enjoyed every last bite of their beguiling apricot-like flavor, and lived to tell about it all.

CSN Contest Winner: In last week’s Food Gal contest for a $100 CSN gift card, I asked you to tell me the one kitchen item you could never do without or giveaway. There were so many great answers that I’ve decided to pick two runners-up, too, who will each receive a cookbook from my vast collection. Without further adieu, here are the winners:

Runner-Up: Jen, who wrote, “My husband the cook!! (Last night’s kitchen story: I came home from work and saw that he’d been experimenting with some Thanksgiving-worthy vegetable side dishes and — sweet! — he’d saved the leftovers for me in bowls in the fridge. Chard and Kale sauteed with garlic and pine nuts in one bowl, Brussels sprouts roasted with bacon in another. I spooned up generous servings of each and ran upstairs to tell him what a great job he’d done … only to find that I’d stolen from his offerings for today’s office potluck. Oops! Won’t say whether he made me put it all back…. )”

Runner-Up: Lisaiscooking, who wrote, “I have an apron that belonged to my grandmother. She always wore an apron, but I never do. Except on Thanksgiving. I’m cooking at my brother’s house this year, and I’m bringing the apron!”

Grand Prize Winner: Linda, who wrote, “My mom’s set of old, worn, tried & true Pyrex mixing bowls. the primary colors of each bowl are faded from all the wear and tear of mixing, storing, marinating and whatever else we decided to use them for. I was absolutely crushed when I broke the smallest blue one and tried to replace it . . . but there was no replacing the love and food that was in the life of that bowl . . . I have the remaining 3; yellow, green and red and am more careful about making sure these don’t get dropped so that they have more food and life in them from my mom’s spirit to share going forward.”

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  • My most memorable experience with mushrooms = making English Muffin Pizzas as a child with my mom in our kitchen; but as a variation to using the muffins, we used portobello mushroom caps instead. They held the cheese and vegetable toppings very well! Fun memory of using mushrooms in a delicious way, in the kitchen.

  • What an incredible way to grow mushrooms! It sounds like an incredible company, I love how they give back!

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  • Congrats to the previous winner and what a great giveaway. My friend Steve hated mushrooms so much that we used to pester him with collages of mushrooms and invites to week-long mushroom foraging camps. But one night out, we ordered this amazing side of wild mushrooms sauteed in truffle oil that even Steve loved. These mushrooms were rich, succulent, and unforgettable.

  • How interesting. Do the mushrooms have a coffee flavor?

  • I saw these at Whole Foods and was SO tempted to get a mushroom kit. Then I remembered my black thumb and worried that I’ll neglect it and kill it. 😉

  • I have to check and see if my Whole Foods has these kits. I’d love to grow my own mushrooms!

  • Yum. I would SO love one. My memory is a pretty simple one. For most of my life I was convinced I disliked mushrooms. Then as a twentysomething I was trying to eat healthier and found myself being more adventurous in the kinds of vegetables, legumes, etc I was willing to try. That also meant reconsidering mushrooms, and I’m glad I did because I realized that everything I thought about them as a kid was no longer valid. I loved the meaty texture, the way they tasted so savory, and how I could throw them in just about everything.

  • My mom used to have a oyster mushroom log that she spritzed with water every day. I imagine the kit is similar but is environmentally friendlier.

    My dad forages for chanterelles in the Oregon forests, but this year met someone who introduced him to matsutake pine mushrooms. My parents recently came to visit and brought mushrooms literally the size of my uncle’s head. I took a photo of my uncle holding up two of them next to him and they’re gigantic. They taste like a meatier King oyster mushroom so I usually just saute them with a bit of olive oil and salt and they’re so good.

  • Wow, how interesting this mushroom story…and so nice how they give back 🙂

  • Great to learn about these mushroom entrepreneurs! My most interesting experience with mushrooms was just recently, making a dish called Thor’s Hammer. Can’t reveal what it is all about yet, but will post it on my site very soon 🙂

  • Hahha! I just made mushroom soup! Would oyster mushroom soup work? I am toying the idea….kekekke….

    Congrats to all the winners 🙂

  • Single Guy Ben: I think you need to try out a kit and tell us if the mushrooms have a faint Arabican or French Roast note. 😉

  • I love these kinds of stories! And surely what they’re doing now is more rewarding than Investment Banking! 😀

  • My most memorable mushroom memory:
    Hen of the Woods Mushrooms . . . first tasted these yummers in NYC with 3 friends at Craft. Simply sauteed with butter and served as a side. Needless to say we each needed to order our own side dish as these arrived with an earthy aroma and looked like nothing we’ve seen before . . . well sauteed in butter any way! loved the first bite and have been ordering ever since. even when I am working / was working a corporate event and was sitting by myself monitoring a dinner event; I’d ask if I could have an order of hen of the woods mushrooms for myself vs. a full dinner . . . I needed to eat light just in case something came up after all! Love these mushrooms and can’t get enough of them!

    we won’t go near the Chinese mushrooms that I had as a kid . . .

  • My mother, a biology professor turned farmers wife, first introduced me to the awe of mushrooms. I grew up on a few acres in the woods in Massachusetts and she used to take me out back where there was a small stream that ran through the woods. She would bring all her National Audubon Society guide books and we would identify all types of flora and fauna in the woods. I remember loving naming the different types of mushrooms, but I always had to ask before I picked one to make sure it wasn’t poisonous. She would teach me all about the spores that allowed the mushrooms to reproduce, and we once even made up a rhyme about the fungi kingdom. Often she would have me bring the non-toxic ones back to the house with us to taste test later that day, but as a child I never liked the actual taste, more just the thrill of eating something I personally picked and identified. Now, however, I love mushrooms of all types! Maybe she was just building my taste buds for one of natures finest treats.

  • I’ve always been a mushroom fan but growing up in the midwest and then spending many years in Florida I had only ever had button and portabello mushrooms readily available to me. A few years ago I moved to Seattle and on my first trip to Pike Place I came across a produce stand that had chanterelles!! I scooped some up and rushed home to try them. Now, I’m so excited to have moved to San Francisco which is such a foodie city I can get my fill of all kinds of yummy funghi!!

  • Contest is now closed. Come back Monday to see who won the mushroom-growing kit.

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