Kimbal Musk: Taking on the Food System

Entrepreneur and restaurateur Kimbal Musk has had a long and varied career with one common denominator: success. He has founded and advised a myriad of ventures including Zip2 (acquired by Compaq), PayPal (acquired by Ebay), Everdream (acquired by Dell), Tesla Motors, SpaceX, OneRiot (acquired by Walmart), and SolarCity. He has also used his business acumen to launch some of the top restaurants in the US with The Kitchen, The Kitchen Next Door, and The Kitchen Upstairs in locations such as Boulder, Denver, and Chicago. In addition to his culinary ventures, he is also Founder and CEO of The Kitchen Community, a nonprofit that brings learning gardens to public schools across the nation. The organization has just built its 200th garden, impacting over 100,000 children on a daily basis. Mr. Musk is taking on the food system in a profound way and successfully building community through food wherever he goes. We had the chance to sit down with Kimbal to discuss everything from his first painting business to the local farm system.

What inspired you to be an entrepreneur? 

Kimbal Musk: Both of our parents were entrepreneurs and our families were very entrepreneurial. But actually, I grew up in the late ’80s and people were really excited about Wall Street, which is arguably entrepreneurial but not really. I got really excited about it, too, and signed up for business school and worked my ass off and got a plum assignment in one of the big banks for my first summer. And it sucked. It was horrible. I had bosses that just were completely uninspiring. No innovation, no real energy. I simply was not able to work for those people. 

So, after that I decided I was going to try to be an entrepreneur and I signed up for College Pro Painting, which is a franchise painting group. You get an area, you learn how to paint, you train people to paint, and you build a business. It was basically Entrepreneurship 101 - you learn how to hire people, pay people, sell to customers, make sure the product quality is good - things like that. And it was very, very hard but very, very successful. I was the top manager in my first year and then, for my second year, I got the best territory in Canada. I was good at what I did and did very well. 

But, I was totally bored. I got through the first year, which was more about learning how to be an entrepreneur and that was very exciting. But the second year, where it was just actually going door to door selling paint jobs, was super dull. I just could not wake up in the morning and get excited. So I quit. 

It just had no meaning. It was just money. And I’ve been very good at making money. That part has not been a problem for me. The problem has been, how do you do it and enjoy your day at the same time? And so, I got in on the Internet and that was awesome - it changed the world. It was 1995 and no one believed it was the right thing to do. We came out of the gates with a mapping technology that no one had ever seen before, which is now totally normal. We were the first to do maps and door-to-door directions on the Internet. It was really cool. 

But then towards the end of that, in ’99, I started to lose interest again because it was the new gold rush and everyone was coming in and it just lost its meaning. We sold our company, and I was like, “I’m out of this.” I went to New York to learn to cook and I loved that. It was very hard though, because cooking schools in New York were old-school and it was very weird to get screamed at by chefs, and you’re just standing there while spittle lands all over your face. And you just stand there like, “I cannot believe I’m listening to this.” I mean it was unbelievable. I was just looking at them thinking, “Are they for real? Is this a joke?” I left there thinking, I’m never, ever going to have that environment in any of my restaurants, and we’ve succeeded in that.

We were actually curious about your transition into food. What was the catalyst behind that? 

KM: My father was a pretty good cook. He had a restaurant when I was a kid. So I kind of liked that side, but I’ve actually been cooking for myself and for my family since about the age of twelve. My father taught me a little bit about it at the restaurant they owned through high school. Our family is a super high energy family, so it was the best way for me to get everyone to just sit down and chat for a little bit. Otherwise, we would not really see each other during the day. 

We’ve had the same experience through our restaurants - our mission at The Kitchen is “Community Through Food.” And it really means a lot in the Boulder community and the Colorado community. It also means a lot at home. 

"Our mission at The Kitchen is 'Community Through Food.' And it really means a lot in the Boulder community and the Colorado community. It also means a lot at home." 

We would love for you to define what it means to you to be a social entrepreneur. 

KM: I’ve actually been working on defining this, so it may sound a little cold, but it really is a blend of measurable social outcome and measurable financial outcome. Financial outcome is pretty easy because it’s been done for hundreds of centuries - since the amoeba. But the social outcome is very amorphous and hard to define. At The Kitchen, we are doing something interesting - we don’t have a reason to do it; our investors do not care about it, but we care. The investors care on an intellectual level but that’s not the reason they support us. Basically, we are measuring every dollar that we put into local farms in Colorado. We put about $1 million into Colorado farms a year - that’s five percent of the local farm industry, which is incredibly huge. 

We measure that because it matters to us. We also measure how many dollars we put into relationship-based supply. For example, when we’re getting fish in Colorado, the relationship-based supply is a fishmonger in Maine or someone that we know in Hawaii who’s bringing us fish. A relationship is also a baker who we know in Colorado, but who gets their flour from outside of the state. So, we have another $2 million a year that we put into these suppliers. 

We are very conscious about our menu creation, so we actually measure how many people we serve. Most restaurants don’t think in terms of number of guests served. They think in terms of average check, total revenue, and bottom-line cash flow. Our primary measurement is how many guests we’re serving, because the number of people you reach with more consciously created food is a critical social metric. I think that, among all of the restaurants, we have served over a million guests, which will increase with the new Chicago location this year. 

How do you actually choose the food producers that you’re working with? What does that process look like? 

KM: We have a very big team now, so the process probably changes every time, but, I think at a high level, we care about the relationship first. If we can look someone in the eyes and say, “OK, I think you’re a good person and you’re going to do the right thing for the earth and for the environment in terms of how you’re going to farm, we’ll trust you in terms of, whether things go wrong or right, we’re working on this solution together.” 

Relationships come first and foremost and quality of product usually comes right out of that because there are very few times that you meet someone that you really connect with but the food isn’t right. That’s just very unusual. So, our number one value is that it all starts with relationships. 

How much of The Kitchen’s menu is organic or biodynamic? Do those certifications matter in terms of the food that you’re selecting or is the locality more important? 

KM: We care a lot about farming techniques but we actually don’t measure that. We measure the locality or the relationship and we’ve always avoided being called organic. We also don’t really like the farm-to-table label. We started way before farm-to-table and farm-to-table is very much a marketing term. It’s not really respected correctly. 

I would love to talk about The Kitchen Community and how you decided to transition to starting your own nonprofit. 

KM: I kind of got frustrated towards the end of 2008. I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing - it was similar to when I left the Internet. The technology stuff I was doing didn’t have a lot of meaning to it. It was a good, interesting company but not meaningful for me in terms of what I was doing. 

And so I really started to get back into food because that’s where I really enjoy myself the most. I was still trying to figure out how I would do it and being very cautious not to get into something that didn’t have meaning for me. I didn’t want to dive into anything without it really feeling right. But I kept trying to dive in, and I couldn’t figure it out, and then I went down a ski hill on an inner tube with my little children, got to the bottom and the tube flipped. I landed on my head and broke my neck. I was horizontal for two months and paralyzed on my left side. That was really intense. 

I had a lot of time to think. I was the CEO of a software company at the time and, from the hospital bed, I resigned and said, “You know, this is just not for me.” 

Then I called my partner, Hugo [Matheson], from the hospital and said, “We’re going to go figure out food and how we can grow this in a more scalable way.” Because, while The Kitchen was wonderful, it doesn’t reach a lot of people and it doesn’t really move the needle. I wanted to be part of something that reached more people. 

"I called my partner, Hugo [Matheson], from the hospital and said, 'We’re going to go figure out food and how we can grow this in a more scalable way.'"

So I told Hugo, “Let’s go figure out how to grow the restaurant. We’ll add a Kitchen in Denver, but I want to create a lower cost, more affordable version of The Kitchen.” Hugo and I worked together and we created The Kitchen Next Door and opened it a year later and were quite successful. It’s one-third the price of The Kitchen and the same philosophy about the food, but has more of a Whole Foods supply chain than a local one. 

That’s not to say it isn’t local; it’s very local, but we have benefited a lot from what Whole Foods has done in terms of product quality. The Kitchen is very much a, “Anne the Farmer, what have you got for us today?” kind of thing, whereas The Next Door’s menu is a “printed once a year” kind of thing. The Kitchen Next Door has enabled us to reach significantly more people than we ever could have reached through The Kitchen. 

On the nonprofit side, I looked at what Bryce [Winton Brown of the Growe Foundation] was doing and it was fantastic. He had succeeded in getting garden-to-table learning integrated into the curriculum in the Boulder Valley School District, which, if you know anything about the education system, is a huge accomplishment for anyone, but for this movement is really huge. 

The data on science is, if you teach kids science in a Learning Garden, especially around fourth and fifth grade, that’s the best way for them to change their nutritional habits because they’ll double their intake of fruits and vegetables. Just by using vegetables and touching them and pulling them out of the ground and growing them, it just changes their whole view on things compared to something their parents put on a plate at home. 

So the results were really powerful, and I thought, you know, Bryce is taking care of Boulder but what could we do that would take it around the country and do something that really scales? I decided after my accident that I’m not interested in small scale. I decided that, given the right amount of time, energy, and resources, plus luck and all that stuff, this is the kind of thing that needs to happen and therefore it will happen if it’s done correctly. 

We looked at school gardens and noticed they were in the corner of the schoolyard and they had fences around them. Those fences are expensive. They’re wooden raised beds. Wooden raised beds fall apart. It was also very hard to teach with them. If you bring a bunch of kids to a fenced-off area, they do more damage than good to the garden. Teachers also need two or three people with them to help and that’s hard to organize. There’s no spontaneity in that environment. 

From the kids’ side, because there’s a fence blocking them from the garden, zero spontaneity is allowed. They are kept out of the garden. And I thought, “there’s got to be a better way to do this.” I asked Jen [Lewin], who is the other cofounder of The Kitchen and my ex-wife, to help us figure this out and she designed the Learning Garden system, which is like Lego blocks in that you can put together any shape and size garden and it can be used in any schoolyard on top of rooftops, pavement, asphalt, grass, even toxic soil. Because the system is so flexible with regard to the location, we put it right next to the playground instead of putting it in the corner of the schoolyard. 

The Learning Garden system was designed so that it was raised high up enough that kids could run through it with no need for a fence, so kids can enjoy it all day long. From a teaching perspective, it was so pretty that teachers would want to use it on a regular basis and say, “It’s a nice day, let’s go outside and read a book in the garden.” It really changed the whole way gardens were done in schools. We’ve also been able to scale it, which is what really matters to us. We’ll be doing our two-hundredth Learning Garden installation in two weeks. 

It’s amazing the impact it has on these kids, it really is, and the teachers, as well. While nutrition is important to them, it’s also the rest of the school day and the whole child that really matters to them. With the Learning Gardens, the kids will go outside, they’ll do some lessons, they’ll get a little energy out and they’ll come back and they’ll just be more available for learning the rest of the day. 

To see the entire interview with Kimbal, including his reflections on the future of the food system, Chipotle, and advice for other entrepreneurs, purchase a digital or print copy of Issue 2.

This article appeared in Issue 2 | Spring 2015

To see more stories like this and features on innovative disruptors such as Chip Conley, Kimbal Musk, Plum Organics, Rocky Mountain Institute, and more - purchase Issue 2 online!

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