In 1999, at the tender age of 27, Kimbal Musk sold an internet company for $307 million. Since then, through companies like PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, he has been instrumental in shaping the way we think about tech. Now he wants to help Americans transition off of highly processed, industrial food, and he's making his next big move here in Memphis.
In May, Musk announced that he would open two new restaurants: one at Shelby Farms Park and another inside Crosstown Concourse. The restaurants — The Kitchen and Next Door — offer simple American dishes at reasonable prices. And here's the kicker: More than 50 percent of the ingredients will be locally produced. Musk originated the concept in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, and has since opened seven across Colorado and one in Chicago.
At the same time, through his nonprofit, Musk will build 100 so-called "Learning Gardens" at Shelby County Schools. These are outdoor classrooms for elementary, middle, and high school students that incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into existing math, science, and health curricula. The Flyer recently caught up with Musk to talk about beet burgers, Big Macs, and the long road to Memphis.
Flyer: Was there a moment when you decided to give up tech?
Kimbal Musk: On Valentine's Day in 2010, I went down a ski hill on an inner tube. I got to the bottom of the run, the tube flipped, and I broke my neck. I was paralyzed, horizontal for two months, and I just kind of said, fuck this shit. I'm not gonna do technology any more. I don't care if it's hard, I'm gonna do food.
Technology is amazing, but it will continue to remove our normal ways of connecting with each other. Using our meals to get together with friends, family, and coworkers — I think it will be our last and most important way to form meaningful bonds.
In your latest TED talk, you spend a lot of time talking about "industrial food." What do you mean by that?
Industrial food is optimized for one thing: price. Whether it's a Twinkie or a Big Mac, it becomes a transport mechanism for an enormous amount of calories with very low nutrition. The end result is that we are simultaneously hungry and obese. We have to get people off that, or society as we know it will collapse.
What's the alternative?
I call it real food, food where you're asking, is it nourishing to the consumer, to the community, the farmer, the planet? A Big Mac has 47 ingredients. One is meat, one is flour for bread, and the other 45 are a total nightmare. A real burger would be ground beef with some flour. It's a very simple concept: What you see is what you get.
What do you say to someone who has never tried beets or kale?
I would tell them to try our beet burger. It's fantastic! I had one for lunch today. Last year, at one of our Denver locations, we sold 100,000 cheeseburgers and 50,000 beet burgers. That's a ridiculous number for a non-beef burger. The truth is, if you're replacing meat, it has to be better. Not the same — it actually has to be better.
Memphis is positioned to be one of the next big cities. Where real estate is concerned, it's a blank canvas. We can find hundreds of acres of farmland right around the city, convert it to organic, and start growing real food in a matter of months. You can't do that in Colorado. In Colorado, all the land is taken, and it's taken by high-margin products.
After The Kitchen announced its new locations, there was a perception among some Memphians that you were planning to "fix" them or teach them how to eat. How do you respond to that?
I don't feel that way, and I'm sorry if there was a misunderstanding. In fact, I believe there's an amazing food renaissance currently happening in Memphis, and I see what I'm doing as fitting very neatly with that. If there's a problem, it isn't Memphis, and it isn't barbecue. It's cheap carbohydrates and high-calorie, low-nutrient food, which is actually a problem for the whole country.
Why is it important to eat food that is locally produced?
First, the money stays locally, which is important for any community that's looking to thrive. And second, when you know where your food comes from, you're more likely to be a good steward of the land. It's a virtuous cycle. When you have a relationship with your farmer, you can trust the quality of their food. Meanwhile, the farmer can take pride in her work because she knows and loves the community she's feeding
Talk about the Learning Gardens.
They're designed for kids to play in them. They're designed for teachers to teach in them. There's no fence around them. They're right there on the playground, so the kids can enjoy them every day. It's a permanent addition to the school.
What do kids actually learn there?
We integrate into the existing curriculum — science lessons mostly. It's a fun way to learn how plants grow, how water evaporates, everything from basic math to biology. The kids love it, and the results are improved academic engagement. They learn more, their test scores go up. And they come back to class refreshed and alert, because they've just spent 45 minutes outdoors.
You're working with Shelby Farms Park to develop a large-scale organic farm. How do you think that will affect the market for local produce?
What we've found is that, in a place like Memphis, the demand for this kind of food is actually 10 to 100 times higher than the current supply. The supply just has to be there. Ten years ago, when we started in Colorado, local farmers were wary of getting on board with this project. They didn't know if we were gonna be around next year or not. Today it's a $20 million industry in Colorado alone, and they can't keep up with demand.
Do you think there's a role for small- and medium-size farms?
I have this argument with farmers in Colorado all the time. I tell them, why don't you just go bigger? Go bigger, go bigger, go bigger. But then I had a conversation with Mary Phillips at Roots Memphis, and she actually changed my mind. In the end, I think there is a role to play for small- and medium-sized farmers. They're not just in it for the money. They're in it for the community, for the amazing lifestyle, producing fantastic real food for Memphis. So even if they're sold out — which causes me frustration — it's a wonderful thing for the community.
Almost 30 percent of Memphians live in poverty. How do they figure into your vision?
I'm absolutely determined to figure out a way for them to eat locally. It will require a lot more supply. And it will require scale: You can't make it affordable with 20-acre farms. But once you start talking about hundreds of acres ... now you're onto something. We absolutely have to produce local food at scale if we want it to be relevant to the community as a whole.
You went to culinary school. What was that like?
It was really intense. I'm a six-foot-four guy, and these little five-foot-tall guys, these little round French chefs, would scream at me for six hours. It was surreal, right out of Full Metal Jacket. Extreme verbal abuse. We started out with 18 people in our class, and only six made it through to graduation.
The first restaurant opened in Paris in 1861, and people have been running them ever since. With The Kitchen, are you doing something new or improving an existing model?
Today we have this idea that food is fuel. You put food in your stomach and then move on with your day. At The Kitchen, we're working hard to bring back the idea of the restaurant as a community hub. You can feel connected because your friends and family are there with you. Also because you're connected to the farms where the food comes from. And finally because you know that what you're doing is helping to teach kids in local schools.