Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, BS 09s

Food Fighters

Duo aims for trust and transparency in food manufacturing

Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, BS 09s

Co-Founders, Back to the Roots
Oakland, Calif.

Thirty seconds. That’s all it took to plant the seeds that led Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez to abandon plans for big corporate jobs and set out to change the way consumers around the world eat.

Arora and Velez co-founded Back to the Roots, a natural foods company that sells 26 home-gardening kits and organic, packaged foods, including grow-your-own mushrooms and stoneground cereals made with 100 percent whole grains and just three or four simple ingredients. With $12 million in funding and an A-list roster of advisers, the Oakland-based company is thriving: Whole Foods, The Home Depot, Nordstrom, and Amazon, among others, stock its products nationwide.

Recently the duo launched a major push into U.S. schools, including a deal to supply food to the 1.1 million students in New York City’s public schools. The deal, announced in February, comes on top of a separate partnership with Sodexo, one of the world’s largest food companies, which also distributes Back to the Roots’ cereals and Garden Toolkits.

Their goal, according to Velez, is to “Undo Food” (a phrase they’ve trademarked) by reconnecting consumers to the land that sustains them and restoring the transparency that’s missing from store aisles. Every Back to the Roots product, for example, contains no more than four ingredients.

“People have lost their trust in food,” says Velez. “They want that trust back.”

Arora and Velez are, by their own admission, accidental entrepreneurs. Both were headed for lucrative careers in consulting and investment banking, respectively, when they heard Haas Lecturer Alan Ross devote 30 seconds of a 90-minute lecture to cultivating mushrooms using coffee grounds.

Arora and Velez, then 21 years old, were intrigued. They filled 10 empty paint buckets with used coffee grounds and mushroom spawn and left them at Velez’s fraternity house during spring break. That only one bucket yielded edible mushrooms didn’t discourage them—they knew they were onto something.

That same day, they walked their bucket of mushrooms over to Chez Panisse for renowned chef Alice Waters to taste on the spot—she was impressed. Managers at several local grocery stores were equally enthusiastic. Before long they were making mushroom-growing kits from the used coffee grounds they collected from local coffee shops. “We thought of ourselves as ‘waste management valets,’” says Arora.

Business blossomed. Today, for all of their confidence, hard work, and passion, Arora and Velez are noticeably humble in their success. “There have been so many individuals along this journey, from Alice Waters to the people at Haas, who probably don’t realize that their support and positive energy were make or break for us,” says Arora. “They say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to raise a business.”

Now, by moving into schools despite the promise of low margins, Arora and Velez see a chance to give back. “Connecting kids back to where their food comes from at a time when Type II diabetes and obesity are on the rise is core to everything our team is passionate about,” says Arora. —Krysten Crawford

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Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora, BS 09s, recently announced a deal to supply food to the 1.1 million students in New York City’s public schools.