Q&A: A decade ago, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez were college students whose interest was piqued by a class case study about growing mushrooms on spent coffee grounds. Their mushroom farming business morphed into a company that sold mushroom-growing kits and transformed again with the addition of organic, stone-ground breakfast cereals to the product line. Their Oakland, California–based company, Back to the Roots, is working to “Undo Food” (their trademarked phrase) — connecting us to what we eat by showing us where it comes from, processing ingredients minimally and creating a community around growing and eating good, simple food. Access recently sat down with Arora, one of the company’s co-founders, for an inside look at how this transparency is tracking.
To us, there’s nothing more personal than food, and it connects all of us.
Back to the Roots is using food to connect people in a whole new way. What’s your vision?
These days, whenever there’s a conversation about connectedness, it seems like it’s about hot gadgets like wearables or whatever else is new. But we’re looking back a generation or two to when our grandparents and great-grandparents were growing and making food for their families. To us, there’s nothing more personal than food, and it connects all of us: We all have to put food into our bodies every day, but in so many cases, we have no idea where that food is coming from. We’re trying to change that with products that let people be where food comes from by growing it themselves, or see where it comes from by learning about who grows the ingredients and how the products are made.
Is that what you mean when you talk about achieving “radical transparency” in food?
We try to bake transparency into everything we do. For example, we put our product recipes on our cereal packaging, even though I can’t tell you how many people have told us we are completely crazy to do that. But it’s food from a kitchen, not from a lab, and we want you to see that you could make it yourself if you wanted to. That said, we’re pretty sure you don’t, because it takes hours, and you’re buying it because you want something convenient!
So, we’re transparent about how we make our products. We’re also transparent about our sources of capital — our investors are on our website talking about why they support what we do, and we put the ICA Fund Good Jobs logo on our packaging because we had help from them. It’s important to us to make clear how many people have come together to make this brand what it is. It might take a village to raise a child, but it takes one to raise a company, too.
Connecting with farmers is also really important to you. What’s the thinking there?
As badly as we consumers want to know where our food comes from, farmers want to know just as much that what they’re growing actually turns into something nourishing. The first time our purple-corn farmer, Scott, saw his name and photo on the back of our Organic Purple Corn Flakes, he teared up. He’s been growing organics for 25 years and had never seen himself connected in that way to the product that was made from what he grew. Farmers want to see where their hard work is going just as much as the rest of us.
Back to the Roots had a huge win recently when New York City public school pupils chose your cereal over conventional cereals in a blind taste test. Now, your cereals are on the menu for more than 250,000 students across the city who eat free school breakfast.
That test was so great — it blew up the whole myth about what kids will eat. When you do taste tests where the kids know a product is organic, they’ll automatically go “ewww!” because they assume it won’t taste as good as processed food. But when you hide the label, they choose what’s good and healthy. Real food tastes good! We’re sharing our cereals and other products with kids all over the country through our “Grow One Give One/Pour It Forward” campaign: Every time a customer buys one of our ready-to-grow or ready-to-eat products and uploads a photo to our website, we’ll donate a product to a classroom of their choice. See, we’re not down on technology — it’s a really good tool for us to use in building connections.