By Mindy Hermann, RD
Nikhil Arora, co-founder, Back to the Roots, chats with OPN Connect about how he turned curiosity and a fraternity experiment into a commitment to connect families with food.
OPN Connect: A frat house is not the usual food incubator. What sparked your interest?
In one of our classes, we learned that mushrooms could grow on coffee grounds, so we turned our fraternity kitchen into a big science experiment. (Co-founder) Alex and I started our careers in consulting and investment banking but our curiosity and interest in urban and organic farming led us back to mushrooms, and we created our Organic Mushroom Farm. We have a longstanding partnership with the oldest and largest gourmet mushroom company, located in Sebastopol, CA.
OPN Connect: What was your next product after mushrooms?
We’ve always been interested in different farming techniques. Through our mushroom contacts, we heard about an aquaponic urban farm called Growing Power in Milwaukee. As with our Organic Mushroom Farm, we scaled a big farm process into a home and classroom experience to create the first ever home aquaponics system, Water Garden.
OPN Connect: How did your thinking evolve after those first two products?
It hit us that our company wasn’t just about mushrooms or fish poop but rather a way to connect families back to their food, even without a backyard or green thumb. Today, the most enjoyable piece of our business is getting into classrooms to help students engage with food in a fun way.
OPN Connect: How would you describe your commitment to organic?
Our original mushroom kit was organic and organic continues to be a big focus for us. We are proud of our products as being safer for people and the planet.
OPN Connect: Your products sound perfect for schools.
On Earth Day, we went to a school in Oakland, CA, and did workshops with Garden in a Can, which were a lot of fun. And we just got a contract to supply our organic Back to the Roots breakfast cereals to the New York City Public School System. They were selected by students in a blind tasting and are the first organic cereals in schools in the US.
OPN Connect: Cereal seems like a departure from your traditional grow-your-own line. How does it relate to your produce products?
We want to bring all the values of fresh produce to other grocery aisles. So we source our cereal ingredients direct from farms, include only three or four ingredients, and even put the recipe on the box. We bring together the whole supply chain.
OPN Connect: What is your newest product?
We created a line of self-watering planters for growing cherry tomatoes, shishito peppers, and chili peppers. People worry about not being able to water plants when they go on vacation. We looked for a simple system and were inspired by the ancient olla, a porous clay vessel. The olla in our self-watering kit can be filled with water once a week. The system is in a large glass jar, and customers tell us that they love watching the roots grow around the olla.
OPN Connect: Where are your products sold?
Home Depot, Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Amazon carry Back to the Roots. They share our vision of organic growing and fresh organic produce.
OPN Connect: What drives the future direction of your company?
We want Back to the Roots to be the Pixar of food, with products that can be enjoyed by an 8-year-old as well as a 38-year old. Products have to be easy, fun, and high quality.