by Bill Husted contributing writer to the Denver Business Journal.
Kimbal Musk is 42, tall and thin as a coat rack. With an easy laugh and a kind demeanor, he seems almost too humble, too grounded to live the life he lives.
Musk was born in South Africa and was raised there until he left for Canada and college with his brother, Elon Musk. Yup, that Elon Musk, perhaps America’s most famous and prodigious entrepreneur. Elon is the man and the mind behind Tesla Motors, PayPal and SpaceX. The most dramatic is SpaceX. Its mission statement: “SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”
Kimbal has been on board with all these companies from day one; he’s also on the Chipotle board.
Just out of college, the brothers started Zip2, an on-line city guide that they sold to Compaq for $307 million. Nice start. Then came PayPal, which sold to eBay for $1.3 billion.
Instead of kicking back in Bali with all that money, Kimbal moved to NYC and learned to cook at the French Culinary Institute. He was in town when 9/11 changed everything. He stayed downtown to feed the firefighters. Then he moved to Boulder in 2004 to open The Kitchen and feed “real food” to real people. The ultimate goal? He wants to change the national food culture.
The Kitchen and the more casual Kitchen Next Door continue to expand in Colorado and other states and his non-profit, Learning Gardens, is growing faster than the vegetables it plants in hundreds of schools in Colorado, LA, and Chicago – teaching thousands of children about food, how to grow it and thrive through it.
Kimbal is divorced and lives in Boulder with his three children. We meet at The Kitchen in LoDo. We sit at a high top near the bar and drink some fizzy water.
Bill Husted: We talked when you first opened The Kitchen 11 years ago. I asked you then and I’ll ask you again – after PayPal, why didn’t you just go sit on beach? Why open a restaurant?
Kimbal Musk: It’s a question I often ask myself. I have always loved food and for me, even if I was on a beach, I would be cooking food every day. The other thing restaurants do for me, which I love, is being around people. The sense of community.
BH: Would you have started a restaurant if you hadn’t lived through 9/11?
KM: I don’t know. It’s impossible to imagine my life without that experience. I do think that there is something genetic about it – with me – that I have to do something that I am passionate about. (Restaurants) keep my mind busy and active. When I opened (The Kitchen) in a way it was more stressful than any of my other businesses. I was very afraid of failure because if you fail at something you love, then you ruin what you love. It worked out very well. But if you truly put your life’s work behind your passion, you risk sacrificing your passion.
BH: How did you choose Boulder?
KM: We (Kimbal and his then wife Jen Lewin) did a road trip. I am a big weather guy, so in February 2002 we went to Chicago, Jackson Hole, Denver, Boulder, Santa Fe, San Diego, Laguna Beach, LA, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle. All great cities. But in February the area that does really well is Denver and Boulder. Even when it’s snowing it’s beautiful. Everywhere else, it wasn’t so great.
BH: So going to Boulder was weather driven more than economy driven?
KM: The food scene in Boulder drew me in. Denver at that time wasn’t quite ready for what I wanted to do. Now it’s thriving, but in 2002 it was still trying to figure itself out.
BH: How do the challenges your brother faces compare to your challenges? Opening a restaurant and challenging the food culture? How are the frontiers similar?
KM: My brother is about energy. SpaceX is his passion and I love being a part of that company. Energy is where he spends a lot of his time and thinking in terms of having an impact on the world. Food and energy are kind of in the same category. For me, creating a supply chain of what we should be eating is incredibly complicated. It’s complicated to figure out how to change the food system in America.
BH: You were one of the first restaurants I saw that sourced all your food and posted it on the wall of the restaurant.
KM: We take enormous care to understand where our food comes from and how it was grown. I saw a billboard for a food company on my way down here to Denver today. It said, “Fresh cracked eggs every day.” And I just said to myself, “I don’t believe it.” And that’s the problem these companies face. They have a long reputation of sacrificing everything for price, and that pushes the calories up, pushed the nutrients down. It includes an incredible amount of artificial ingredients. Those companies have to figure out a how to change it, and it’s not easy to change.
BH: I don’t believe what restaurants tell me, especially in the mountains. They tell me they are serving Olathe corn in June and there is no such thing as Olathe corn in June.
KM: We see that all the time. Large or small companies can make any claim they want.
BH: There is no menu police.
KM: We need more transparency, especially when it comes to local farm supply. These farmers are working very hard. If they have a product that you use, great. But if their product is just claimed to be used, it can be extremely damaging to the industry, to the farm, to the trust of the restaurants.
BH: Your mission has grown since you started The Kitchen.
KM: We started with a non-profit school program, teaching kids about food. But after working a couple of years, working with the restaurants and the school gardens, I just didn’t see much scale. We were doing two gardens-a-year in Boulder and we had two successful restaurants, but I just couldn’t figure out how to scale it. So I went back to the tech world for about four years and I was really unhappy. Tech is fun, but it is disconnected from the community. Then I had an accident in 2010. (Kimbal crashed while tubing in a ski mountain and was paralyzed for three days with a broken neck. An operation and recuperation left him prone and alone for two months.) I started thinking about how I was going to scale the restaurants and the school gardens. And because I broke my neck, I had this incredible opportunity to restart everything. We opened the first Learning Garden in 2011. And we opened the first Kitchen Next Door, which was more affordable, more fun, a faster experience.
BH: Is the idea of scale some genetic thing? Like, “Hey, I’m going to Mars!”
KM: I don’t know. When I was younger I didn’t understand how important scale was. And now that I have done a few businesses, if there isn’t scale it doesn’t get my juices going.
BH: How big a part does taste and flavor play in your restaurants?
KM: In the end, the food has to taste good. If the product isn’t good – it doesn’t matter if it’s food or cars or smart phones – no one is going to want the product no matter how good your mission is.
BH: Your plate seems pretty full. You’re doing a lot.
KM: Yes, it’s a lot, but I really enjoy it. I learn something from all these companies. Chipotle, it’s obvious. Their growth depends on the supply chain, so it’s very interesting to have a front-row seat to that. And SpaceX, how could that not be interesting? It’s an incredible endeavor and it’s my brother’s passion, so I love being a part of that. Tesla, I was part of that from the beginning. Elon and I wanted it to exist, we wanted electric cars to exist. And I learn so much about tangible products, not software. There is so much there that I can bring back to my business.
BH: You drive a Tesla?
KM: I love it. Once somebody drives a Tesla it’s hard to imagine going back to another car.
BH: What your idea of happiness?
KM: I am a pretty happy guy. Inner peace. Just being able to understand what’s going on inside my head without getting caught up in it.
BH: In a story I read, your mother described you as “kind and considerate.”
KM: She’s not biased at all.
BH: Do you miss South Africa?
KM: Not really. I love America. It’s the best country in the world. And I’ve checked.
BH: What’s your greatest fear?
KM: Doing things by myself. I don’t like that at all. I always bring people together with whatever I do. Maybe it’s the selfish reason to be kind and considerate. To keep people wanting to hang out with me.
BH: What’s your greatest extravagance?
KM: I took my Tesla and redesigned it from the inside out. But I am not super materialistic. I have a nice house in Boulder, but nothing fancy. I have one car, one bike.
BH: When and where were you happiest?
KM: I have been happy many times in my life. I was very happy when I was first married. And bizarrely, I was very happy after I broke my neck. My body was in shock and I have never been happier.
BH: Maybe it was the pain pills.
KM: I hated the drugs and I stopped taking them. But I was extraordinarily happy. Happiness isn’t my problem. I have always had a sense of happiness.
BH: What do you think of GMOs?
KM: They have an enormous role to play in the future. But they have been done terribly by the people doing them. There is no trust in GMOs, so they are being rejected by society.
KM: This is embarrassing, but I just started reading Michael Pollan.
BH: What about Mark Bittman?
KM: I read his stuff in the New York Times. He’s fantastic. I see Pollan and Bittman go straight to the real problems, without any agenda.
BH: Is there a food you would not eat?
KM: No. I’ll even eat a Big Mac if I feel like it. I probably wouldn’t eat the whole thing.
BH: You don’t claim that the The Kitchen is a health restaurant.
KM: We have never considered ourselves to be a health restaurant. We are a “real food” restaurant. You can get a real connection to the community through our food, but if you order a side of fries, they may be the best fries you have ever had, but they are still fries. You can’t get around the fact that they are potatoes fried in oil.
BH: Would you like to be famous?
KM: I have watched my brother become quite famous and it’s definitely a two-edged sword. It’s by no means a blessing. I mean going out to dinner with my brother is really tough. The better known he gets, the harder it gets.
BH: Is it a burden being Elon Musk’s brother?
KM: There are many ways to look at it – but it’s as amazing as you could imagine.
BH: What are you most grateful for?
KM: My kids. And the experiences I have had. Having a brother like Elon. . .
BH: When was the last time you cried in front of somebody?
KM: I saw “Inside Out” with my kids and it was an incredibly emotional movie. There I was, sobbing.
BH: Do you have a motto?
KM: It’s more of a story than a motto. An 85-year-old man is talking to a 25-year-old man and the 25-year-old is really frustrated. The old man says, “When I was in my 20s, I really cared about what people thought about me. And when I was in my 40s, I decided I didn’t care what people thought about me. And now that I’m in my 80s, I realize that they were never thinking about me at all.”