During our last semester of college, we became curious about a random fact we heard in a business ethics class: gourmet mushrooms could grow on spent coffee grounds. That curiosity led us to eventually turn down our job offers in investment banking and consulting to instead became full-time urban mushrooms farmers after we graduated. As we turned an old warehouse in Oakland into an urban mushroom farm, our curiosity grew into a deep passion to reconnect families back to where their food comes from.
After a couple years of growing fresh mushrooms for grocery stores, farmers markets, and restaurants, we saw an opportunity to shrink down our big urban mushroom farm into a table-top experience. We launched the Back to the Roots Mushroom Grow Kit – our first true “CPG” product – to let kids and families in any home or classroom experience that same magic of growing food, no backyard or green thumb needed. As we became more inspired by the incredible feedback from our community, we expanded into a whole line of Indoor Gardening Kits, sold mainly, at the time, in produce sections of grocery stores like Whole Foods Market. These included the Water Garden (tabletop aquaponics system), Kitchen Herb Gardens, and Self-Watering Tomato & Pepper Planters.
Our whole team spent countless hours in Whole Foods Market (WFM) doing demos. Standing in the produce section selling our gardening kits, for hundreds and hundreds of hours, we started noticing something really clear: there was a HUGE divide in the food values you experience in the produce section and when growing your own food from those just a few feet away at the start of the “center of store” aisles. In the produce section, you were able to taste and smell the freshness, see the ingredients, or grow them yourself. But all that transparency largely disappeared the moment you stepped into the grocery aisles.
We began to ask ourselves: how could we connect the dots between produce and grocery, between the garden and the kitchen, between food that’s ready to grow and food that’s ready to eat? How could we bring the same level of radical transparency and trust you feel when you grow your own food to the center aisles? How could we take ready to eat food “Back to the Roots”?
As we dove deeper into this question, we realized there was an opportunity to #UndoFood – launching grocery products that were direct-farmer sourced, radically transparent, and minimally processed. And what better place to start than with breakfast cereal? For many kids, it is their first experience with “cooking” – mixing milk and cereal together. It’s also a $10B industry that has 90 percent household and school penetration, an institution and symbol of our food system. It is also a category that was started as a “health food” by the Kelloggs’ brothers over a hundred years ago, but had unfortunately morphed into a candy aisle – full of sugar, artificial ingredients, and lots of additives/preservatives.
We saw an opportunity to “Undo Food,” first through cereal.
Two years ago, we launched a line of organic (and biodynamic!), 100 percent stoneground cereals made with just 4 or less direct-farmer sourced ingredients. We put the recipe right on the box and the packaging was the first bagless cereal box – 100 percent recyclable.
We launched the cereal into WFM, becoming its 2nd largest driver of category growth, not including private label. Then, after students in NYC voted on new cereals in blind taste tests, Back to the Roots displaced Kellogg’s in the NYC Public School System to feed 1.1 million kids every day, becoming the first organic cereal ever offered in US public schools.
As these accounts grew, we also saw momentum building on the indoor gardening side. The category had just reached $1 billion, as millennials drove the future of gardening towards organic and small/urban spaces. Throughout 2018, we’ve been growing quickly with our current partners (The Home Depot, Amazon, Whole Foods), Ayesha Curry joined the movement, and distribution has grown with Costco and nationwide launches in Target and Lowe’s.
Through all this, we began to ask ourselves what was the best way to maximize impact. How do we grow the indoor gardening category, while scaling our cereal line into every home and classroom?
And while we could do it alone, given the tight category margins and high-volume runs required, it would take raising significant capital and working through the years-long distribution cycles. We began to ask how could we, today, make a bigger impact, faster. We realized if the right partner and opportunity came along to help us scale the cereal side, it would allow us to focus our core resources on scaling the gardening category.
Through this exploration, we met Arran, Ratana, and Arjan Stephens, the amazing family behind Nature’s Path, the largest organic breakfast company in the world, at Expo West 2018. We’ll never forget walking up to their booth at Expo West to chat with Arran, sitting atop their tall treehouse, overlooking the beautiful chaos that is Expo West, and chatting about the future of food. They are a company we have looked up to for years – true pioneers in this industry, spearheading the organic movement for over 30 years. Passionate and uncompromising in their vision to promote an “organic world,” all the while operating on a massive scale with their own manufacturing facilities across North America.
After our first conversation we realized there was a perfect fit here — starting with a truly shared vision. Layer on top of that the Back to the Roots organic, biodynamic, and simple-ingredient cereal brand that was resonating with millennials in retail and school districts, and Nature’s Path deep manufacturing, supply chain, and sales/marketing expertise — right away, it felt like magic.
Fast forward to today, and we’ve now signed an exclusive licensing agreement with Nature’s Path. Starting this school year, they will be taking over sourcing, manufacturing, sales, and distribution of our cereal lines. We continue to own the brand, and will still stay deeply involved in R&D/new product development, and the overall vision for the line.
The first task at hand? Take our case study in NYC Public Schools and get organic cereal into every school district in the country. If it can work in NYC, with 1.1 million students, we know it can work everywhere. We’re already well on our way — bids have been submitted and interest is coming back from districts around the country. We now have the resources to scale up, the capabilities to offer new SKUs, and the opportunity to service millions of more kids. Through our partnership with the Urban School Food Alliance, we expect that by 2020 1 in 5 kids in America will have an organic cereal choice for breakfast!
As we look forward, we couldn’t be more excited and inspired by the future. We wake up every morning for this mission to reconnect families and kids back to food. Now, we get to do it by mainly focusing on the fun challenge of inspiring everyone to experience that magic of growing their own food; all the while also supporting our friends at Nature’s Path to get our cereals into every home and classroom in America. Together, we truly have a chance to #UndoFood for this next generation.
As Helen Keller reminded all of us, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”
The natural foods movement was built off collaboration, and we’re seeing the need for it more than ever now as the movement matures. With a truly shared vision, big and small can work together in so many more ways than just an acquisition or investment.
We’re honored to be partnered with Nature’s Path and excited to grow, together.
About Alejandro Velez & Nikhil Arora
Back to the Roots was founded in 2009 by then college seniors Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora after discovering how to grow gourmet mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds. Since then, Back to the Roots has evolved from an urban mushroom farm to a thriving business on a mission to Undo Food and reconnect families back to where it comes from through an award-winning line of Ready-to-Eat breakfast cereals and Ready-to-Grow Indoor Gardening Kits. Back to the Roots currently distributes its products in thousands of stores & schools nationwide.
Nikhil and Alejandro, co-founders & co-CEOs of Back to the Roots, have been honored with several awards recognizing their efforts in sustainability and entrepreneurship including BusinessWeek’s “Top 25 Entrepreneurs under 25,” Inc.’s “30 Under 30,” Inc. 500, Forbes’ “30 Under 30,” and CNN’s “10 Next Entrepreneurs to Watch.” In addition, Back to the Roots was recognized by Martha Stewart as a Top Ten American Made honoree, by President Obama as Champions of Change, and recently delivered the commencement address at their Alma-Mater, UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. Back to the Roots is a certified B-Corp based in Oakland, CA. For more info visit www.backtotheroots.com.