Interview: Back to the Roots

Erin Jones caught up with Jared about Back to the Roots, and their success in reconnecting people to the food they’re eating.

When did you meet WJF? 

Back to the Roots entered the 2012 WJF Business Plan Competition. We placed first at the LOHAS Forum, won the Enjuba Young Entrepreneurship Prize, and received Honorable Mention in the WJF Venture Phase.

Where are you located? Oakland, CA

What problem are you trying to solve? We are giving people the experience of being able to grow their own food at home. We see the grow your own food movement as very much stuck in that Berkeley hippie stereotype that you have to have the space, the time, the energy, the knowledge, and the resources to do it all, and it’s not that easy. We feel it’s not because people don’t want to do these things, but because they don’t have that time and space and energy and money and all of that. If we give them an easy, accessible, fun way to do this, to grow their own food, they will support our products and our company, and they will rally behind us. For us, it’s not about giving them something that will feed their whole family for the week, it’s about the experience. It’s kind of like buying a bike for the first time—once you do it, you have the confidence and knowledge to move forward and try again, to ride faster and further and longer next time.

You might have your first experience of growing your own food with one of our products and then you might get into it more afterward and start learning more about it and thinking more about your food and where it comes from. That’s really what we’re doing, reconnecting people to their food and starting to reevaluate food in general and how it’s produced, where it’s coming from.

grow-it-at-home mushroom kits

Back to the Roots team makes daily collections of the coffee ground waste generated from local coffee shops, transports the waste to an urban warehouse just miles away, and transforms it into the substrate for gourmet pearl oyster mushrooms.

The mushroom kits are in 1,500 retailers, and are sold to consumers nationwide.

How did you become interested in this problem? We were first growing fresh mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds. Our customers were excited by it and we would see them at the farmers markets and stores, and they liked our mushrooms and they liked that they were grown on coffee grounds. But more than anything, they wanted a way to do it themselves. After enough people told us that, we decided let’s try and make a mushroom kit where you grow your own mushrooms. We did that and people loved it and were so excited by it. What I’m getting at is that we’ve really evolved as a company just by listening to our customers, realizing what is that they want, how we can satisfy their needs, what they’re looking for, their desires, and just running with that.

For me, that’s one of the coolest things about working with Back to the Roots. We don’t set out with this mindset that this is what we’re going to do, but more hey let’s listen to the people, let’s listen to our customers, let’s see what they get excited about.

The other day, I had a meeting with some of our amazing customer community. Every once and a while, we have a video chat with a group of our favorite customers who’ve been very enthusiastic about our product. We run some new ideas by them, see what they think, how they receive what we’re thinking about, if they have any ideas for us, and just go from there.

What is your solution to the problem? It’s cliché to compare yourself to Apple, but we see the way Apple took the computer and took it from this geeky, big, hard to use thing and through ease of use and good product design, they have gotten it into the hands of almost every person in the country. It’s all about how you design it and how easy and accessible you can make it for people, so that’s what we’re in the process of doing right now, just making our products easy, fun, accessible, and affordable, so that people can pick them up easily, figure them out with a few simple directions, and grow their own food. Right now, it’s mushrooms, and we’re hoping to launch our second product in Q1 of 2013.

Who are your customers? We sell nationwide with Whole Foods. On the west coast, we’re in Home Depot and Safeway. On the east coast, we’re in Central Market, Fresh Market, and a couple of Wegmans. In the rocky mountain region, we’re in a chain called Vitamin Cottage, and we’re in a lot of mom and pop shops through the country. Overall, we’re in about 1,500 retailers across the country.

We also just won the sofi Gold Award for Best Food Gift at the Summer Fancy Food Show in Washington, DC. That brought us a lot of publicity, a lot of people looking for a new, exciting food product. Everyone from a small garden store to a flower store to a gift shop will get in touch with us to order 12 to 20 mushroom kits to have on their shelves, especially as we approach the holidays.

As far as people goes, it spans quite a large demographic. We originally set out catering to kids and families, giving them the educational element of being able to grow their own food at home. What we found is that it really crosses a lot of boundaries and a lot of different groups—a middle aged person will get excited about the thought of growing their own mushrooms because they’ve never seen it before or are just excited, or an older person will get excited because they are looking for a new project or something fun and exciting to do and a person gave it to them as a gift. There are a lot of teachers, a lot of chefs, foodies, gardeners, all sorts of people.

What are some of your major challenges? One of our biggest challenges is on the education side. It’s great once we sell mushroom kits to grocery stores, like Whole Foods, but when a customer walks by the kit, all they see is a brown box with some signage and some pictures and some wording and no one knows what it is. It’s not like when you go to the store to buy some apples and bananas and some meat. Chances are that you don’t have a mushroom box on your shopping list.

The biggest thing for us is educating about what it is, getting our word out there, getting our story out there, getting our mission out there, and showing people what can happen when you pick up the box and start growing. That’s the biggest issue, helping the customer to see the potential rather than just see the box, seeing all the options. People will say “oh that’s a lot, $20 for mushrooms, it’s a lot of money, I could just go buy mushrooms over there.” Our response to that is it’s the experience and on top of that, you get to eat the mushrooms when you’re done. But it’s all about having that experience and being able to watch your own food grow in front of your eyes in only 10 days.

How many people do you employ? About 31 people

Has the WJF competition and mentoring program helped you? One, it’s helped us get the word out there. Every chance we have to get our name out there, to tell the Back to the Roots story, and to talk about our product is another chance to get in front of more people—that’s our mission right now, to get in front of as many people as possible.

Two is the resources that the WJF has brought us through the competition. We won some money through the WJF, and obviously that helps. We’ve bootstrapped the entire operation from the ground up without taking money from outside, largely on business plan competitions and grants. $1,000 for us is $8,000 dollars of POs, in the way it breaks down. So, $1,000 without any costs associated with it is amazing, any amount of money in that way.

What other resources have you found that are particularly useful for social entrepreneurs? There’s the Social Venture Network, which we’re largely part of and we always love their support and advice. We have calls with them every few months to keep them updated and get their advice. Also, a big one in the Oakland/Bay Area is the Inner City Advisors. They help match business people, everyone from lawyers to anyone who wants to help up and coming entrepreneurs, to people that are doing business just to help them learn. It’s all pro bono, and they will match you with a mentor and you have a mentor/mentee relationship where they will work with you on certain issues. They will do consulting stuff for you, help you build your team, help you on sales calls—that’s been huge for us.

For readers who want to know more about what you’re up to, where can we send them?