In their last semester at UC Berkeley, Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora were inspired by a class lecture about the possibilities of growing mushrooms using entirely recycled coffee grounds. The perfect representation of turning waste into wages, after various experimentations the pair founded Back to the Roots in 2009. We caught up with Nikhil to learn more about the company’s business model and its newest offering, a tabletop aquaponic farm.
You’ve taken the Mushroom Grow Kit from a fraternity kitchen to stores nationwide in four short years. What were the biggest challenges in bringing the kit to consumers at scale?
Raising awareness and creating demand. Consumers weren’t going into a Whole Foods, Home Depot or Nordstrom looking for a Mushroom Kit, so we have had to work really hard with our retail partners and communities to drive awareness and create demand in stores. We built our distribution to 2,000 locations, store by store, demo by demo. Our company was built using in-store demos. That's all we did for our first two years — creating customers and building demand, one customer at a time, one store at a time.
When we first launched, we got approved for five stores in Northern California’s Whole Foods. We didn't leave those stores till we sold out. Eventually, five stores turned into 10 and we did the same thing, creating sales demo by demo. Ten stores turned into regional distribution and regional turned to national. Along the way, our first customers started telling their friends and a true grassroots buzz started to form to help us get to where we are today.
But building that initial buzz and demand was our biggest challenge. There's so much competition for consumers’ attention and dollars. As a small brand, you have to hustle so hard to get your fair share of that attention!
What are the demographics or psychographics of a BTTR consumer?
The continued consumer paradigm shift to plant-based diets
Hear the latest on shifting consumer preferences toward more plant-based, planet-friendly foods from Daniel Vennard, Director of the World Resource Institute's Better Buying Lab — at SB'20 Long Beach.
Food is universal and we want to tap into that. With our Mushroom Kits and AquaFarm, we've been getting an amazing response from kids and their schools, who love how fast, unique and fun the products are, to parents who want a quick way to have fresh food for dinner and teach their kids about sustainability, to the elderly who want a low-maintenance way to keep on gardening. The Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm are also perfect for the young, urban city dweller who wants to bring a little magic of the farm to a small apartment.
What was the most interesting outcome of your work with The Collective, BBMG’s community of Aspirational consumers?
We got some amazing marketing ideas from The Collective, including some brilliant taglines and ways of explaining our unique products to people really quickly. That's one of our biggest challenges: How do you communicate what a Mushroom Kit or AquaFarm is to a consumer at retail in the three seconds you have to get their attention? The Collective was very helpful in getting that elevator pitch right.
What has been keeping the BTTR team busy lately?
We’re launching AquaFarm, which has been really exciting. We just launched into Whole Foods and Nordstrom and are launching nationally with Petco in September — an awesome opportunity that we're looking forward to.
We are expecting a really busy holiday season as both the Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm make awesome green gift ideas, so we want to scale up production and make sure we execute this year-one launch right. In the background, though, we are working on some new and exciting projects to keep connecting families to food again — stay tuned!
What are the core tenets of BTTR's value system and how do the Mushroom Grow Kit and AquaFarm speak to them?
We want to design products that let anyone connect with food — green thumb or not. Our products have to be fun, beautifully designed and full of discovery and excitement so even those without a big backyard or those without gardening experience can feel confident and good about growing their own food and connecting with it.
The Mushroom Kit, for instance, grows in just 10 days. It’s as easy as it gets to grow your own food, which is why I think we've been able to reach such a diverse customer base, from Whole Foods to Home Depot to Toys R Us. Food is naturally a really fun and community-based experience. We just want to capture that in our products. With the AquaFarm, you get to have a pet fish that helps you grow your own food. How awesome and fun is that?! And you don't have to worry about watering your plants or cleaning the fish tank — it has its own little ecosystem!
What are the changes you would most like to see in the marketplace, and how might BTTR bring those to fruition?
More transparency! Customers deserve more transparency into the products they buy, and we believe they will reward companies for being transparent. We've seen it with our own company and sales. We're going to keep on working hard to create a company that can make money and do good at the same time, and we want to be super transparent along the way—about what we do right and wrong. We hope that our success can serve as an example to other companies that transparency is not only good for customers, but it’s good for business, too!
Nikhil and Alex spoke at our Sustainable Brands '13 conference, you can watch the video here