A Chance to Grow Your Own Oyster Mushrooms at Home!
Business is mushrooming at BTTR Ventures…Literally! BTTR Ventures turns the waste from coffee grounds into the ideal medium for growing gourmet mushrooms
Just before the Christmas holiday we welcomed a new vendor to Sigona’s. A vendor that not only provides us with amazing, locally grown Oyster mushrooms, but a vendor that has also provided our customers with everything they need to grow Oysters at home in a sustainable way, simply by using one man’s trash to grow another’s treasure!
The trash? It’s coffee; the very first thing most Americans stumble to the kitchen for in the morning. Part of this morning ritual involves day-old coffee grounds, which get tossed out or, if you’re abiding by the city’s new recycling ordinance, added to the compost can.
Alejandro (Alex) Velez and Nikhil Arora, 22-year-old co-founders of BTTR Ventures (the first part of the name is pronounced “better” and stands for “back to the roots”), devised a plan for reusing used coffee grounds to grow mushrooms that, in less than a year’s time, has landed them on BusinessWeek’s “2009 Finalists: America’s Best Young Entrepreneurs,” a list comprised of 25 U.S. entrepreneurs ages 25 and under.
Oh. And they were also recently named the Runner-Up in the BBC/Newsweek World Challenge 2009 for socially innovative companies!
Alex and Nikhil were introduced by their business ethics professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Their professor suggested they meet as they had both individually expressed interest in further researching a topic addressed by a guest lecturer: how people in Africa used coffee pulp to grow mushrooms to fight malnutrition.
Knowing used coffee grounds are one of largest waste streams in America, the two did their research and, with what started in the kitchen at a fraternity, have transformed used coffee waste into a base for a “highly-demanded, nutritious, and valuable food product” – specialty mushrooms.
“Soon after we were introduced we found ourselves knee-deep in coffee and mushrooms,” said Nikhil. “Basically, what we’re doing is taking someone’s garbage and adding value to it. Making this a reality has been a fun transition.”
In addition to the mushrooms BTTR provides to specialty grocery stores, they also created a BTTR Gourmet Garden,” a grow-your-own pearl oyster mushroom kit.
“We brought in the kits just before Christmas and sold out within the first few days,” said Robbie Sigona, produce buyer for Sigona’s Farmers Markets. “After seeing and tasting the quality of BTTR Ventures mushrooms, I knew the kits would be well received. We have just the clientele BTTR Ventures is looking at as their target market. Additionally, one of our business values is to support local vendors, established or startup, and we’re excited to help them along. Not only are they providing locally grown produce, they’re utilizing local resources and abundant, reusable waste to create a sustainable business and product that adds value to our community.”
A little history: Alex and Nikhil were given a $5,000 social innovation grant from the university to get started. After solidifying a plan, BTTR Ventures, partnered with Peet’s Coffee & Tea, also a company with local roots, as a source for used coffee grounds, and with a company in San Juan Bautista for the mushroom spores.
Seeking verification that they had indeed cultivated a high-quality mushroom, Alex and Nikhil went to Chez Panisse, home of one of the best chefs in the world, for a taste test. Armed with the Chez Panisse chef’s stamp of approval, BTTR Ventures then approached produce buyers at local specialty grocery stores to see if BTTR Ventures mushrooms piqued their interest.
It’s obvious now that their plan worked; they definitely piqued the interest of Robbie Sigona, as well as the interest of produce buyers at several local specialty grocery stores in the Bay Area. BTTR Ventures mushrooms can now be found in 15 specialty foods stores in the Bay Area, and the company has since moved from the fraternity kitchen to a temperature-controlled warehouse in Emeryville. Here they pack recyclable bags with used grounds and mushroom spores and tend to the mushrooms as they start to grow from the substrate, or surface, created by the coffee grounds.
As for what’s next, the team is focused on their new “The BTTR Gourmet Garden,” which they introduced in early December. “We developed the idea for the kit by trying to come up with a way to make our product more local for the consumer,” said Nikhil. “We like to work with the mentality that it doesn’t matter so much how the food is grown or if it’s organic, but how far it has traveled to get to you.”
“We’re taking our business a step further to say ‘grow these out of your own home, on your own window sill,’” continued Alex. “We want to present the challenge to those who consider themselves to be great chefs and take pride in their cooking. You may be able to create a fantastic dish, but can you grow your own ingredients?”
Strengthening Community Roots: In addition to strategy and business development, Alex and Nikhil continue to brainstorm ways to ensure BTTR is the type of business that gives back and supports the local community. The impact BTTR Ventures has had on its local community is already astonishing, considering the company started just shy of one year ago.
“The roots of harvested mushrooms leave behind a significant amount of nutrients,” explained Alex. “Mushroom compost is called SMS, which is high-end compost. We sell some to local community, but we donate much of the compost to local organizations such as the Oakland Unified School District and community gardening groups. Out of our own compost, there are now two high schools in the Oakland district with school gardens.
“I think what’s most important about what we’re trying to do, or rather what we gave up to do this, is our community,” continued Alex. “Our goal is to operate a sustainable business using a national waste stream to create jobs and grow produce on a local level, and we’re already able to see tangible results from our efforts.”
The BTTR Gourmet Garden with Pearl Oyster Mushrooms is available at both Sigona’s locations for $19.95. The kit will fruit one week after opening and provides fresh Oyster mushrooms over multiple flushes.
Of course, we wouldn’t leave you without any recipes for oyster mushrooms! Click here for recipes from Carmelo Sigona and BTTR Ventures.
*Photos courtesy of BTTR Ventures.