NEW YORK ― Last month, Elon Musk laid out his “master plan” to transform Tesla into a clean energy giant. In a 1,483-word blog post, he outlined plans to meld his automobile company with SolarCity, the country’s largest solar installer, to create a one-stop shop for electric cars, batteries and solar-panel roofing.
He’s not the only Musk with a grand vision. For the last 14 years, Kimbal Musk, Elon’s younger brother, has been quietly waging his own battle against industrialized food. While Elon built a tech empire in California, the younger Musk moved to Colorado and founded The Kitchen, an ambitious family of restaurants committed to bringing sustainably grown, locally sourced, healthfully prepared food to the American heartland. His empire of eateries ― whose fare includes homemade kale chips, quinoa grown in Colorado and lamb sourced from Boulder’s Crego Livestock farm ― stretches from Boulder and Denver in Colorado, to Chicago. By the end of August, it will include a new location in Memphis, Tennessee.
The younger Musk sits on the board of Chipotle, whose fresh ingredients have forced McDonald’s to rethink the grub it sells. With his own restaurants ― he’ll have 11 by the end of the year ― he aims to do the same to the Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s of the world ― establishing a vast empire of farm-to-table restaurants across the parts of the country sometimes mocked as “flyover states.”
In his next move, he plans to take on agriculture, too.
On Tuesday, Musk announced the launch of Square Roots, a new company that will invest in startups growing fresh fruit and vegetables in cities. The so-called accelerator aims to provide mentorship and resources to bootstrapped urban farmers, who will operate out of Square Roots’ specially designed shipping containers equipped with hydroponic growing towers. The firm, formed under The Kitchen LLC umbrella, is slated to open its first location in Brooklyn sometime this fall.
“The Kitchen’s mission is to strengthen communities by bringing local, real food to everyone,” Musk, 43, wrote in a Medium post published Tuesday. “Our goal [with Square Roots] is to enable a whole new generation of real food entrepreneurs, ready to build thriving, responsible businesses. The opportunities in front of them will be endless.”
Urban farming seems ready to take off. Roughly 800 million people worldwide raise vegetables, fruits or animals in cities and produce about 15 percent of the world’s food, according to a recent United Nations report. But people are increasingly concentrating in urban areas; an anticipated 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. And all those people need to eat.
In developing countries, urban farmers grow food for subsistence. In the U.S., the urban agriculture landscape looks more like a movement than an industry. Cities like Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C., have started programs encouraging people to grow produce on vacant lots and rooftops. Michelle Obama, who made healthy eating and exercise a cornerstone of her legacy as First Lady, has touted community farming as a do-it-yourself answer in blighted urban communities where fresh produce is hard to find.
Kimbal Musk envisions a network of his companies in major cities across the U.S., particularly in the South and Midwest, where industrial farming and fast-food chains have the strongest grip on mainstream diets.
The Kitchen, for its part, has been dipping its toes in these waters for some time now. The company’s nonprofit arm, The Kitchen Community, operates about 300 “learning gardens” in more than 50 towns and cities, where an estimated 150,000 schoolchildren tend crops and, ideally, forge deeper connections with their food. Even skeptics who debate urban farms’ environmental benefits and potential to produce enough calories to feed whole cities agree that they imbue people with a greater appreciation for food.
“We want our communities to know what real food is. We want kids in communities to know real food, and we want them to have a choice between real food and industrial food,” Kimbal Musk told The Huffington Post in an interview last month, on the day after his brother released Tesla’s updated “master plan.” “Right now, for many of them, it’s industrial food, fast food or nothing. We want to bring education back so kids know they have options.”
Around the world, a growing number of tech-minded startups are tinkering with agriculture. A supermarket in Berlin installed a small indoor farm earlier this year, growing fresh greens in the middle of the store. In Japan ― where the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster piqued paranoia about irradiated produce ― the world’s largest operating indoor farm yields 10,000 heads of lettuce per day in an abandoned Sony factory. And in the U.S., there are companies like Aerofarms, which is growing kale, arugula and other leafy greens out of an old paintball arena in a run-down neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey.
Square Roots marks Musk’s entrance into this emerging industry. Conceived of as a startup accelerator ― Silicon Valley-ese for a firm that provides space and resources to entrepreneurs ― the company injects The Kitchen’s restaurant line with a dose of the tech-industry mindset the Musks are known for. (Kimbal Musk serves on the boards of Tesla and SpaceX ― Elon is CEO of both ― and is his brother’s trustee for the two companies.)
Both Musks, who are originally from South Africa, have a storied history in tech. They cofounded Zip2, a startup that helped newspapers build online city guides, in 1995. They sold the company to Compaq for $300 million in 1999. Elon Musk used that money to found the online payments startup PayPal and invest in Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX.
The younger Musk used his payout to indulge his passion for cooking. He moved to New York and began taking classes at International Culinary Center, where he studied French cooking. His has said his philosophy on food began to take shape after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when he volunteered to feed the firefighters pulling bodies from the gnarled rubble of the World Trade Center. Musk said he had an epiphany while driving an ATV loaded with a cooler of poached salmon to the gymnasium of a school near ground zero.
“You see these giant piles of still-molten metal in front of you and you see these firefighters coming out of the most traumatic environment you can possibly imagine to sit down in these gymnasiums and eat what we cooked for them,” Musk told HuffPost last month. “That sense of community that I felt was just profound to me. It was an absolute epiphany, but it was actually like a blow to the head. It was so intense. I left that experience saying, ‘I just have to open a restaurant.’”
He spent the next year roadtripping across the U.S. with his (now former) wife, and eventually settled in Boulder. There, seemingly by fate, he met Hugo Matheson, an English chef. As Steven Levy wrote in a deeply reported 2015 profile of Musk in Backchannel:
A week after arriving, Musk’s dog slipped off the leash and nuzzled a man enjoying coffee at a local shop. This was Hugo Matheson, himself a recent arrival from England, who was about to take a job as executive chef in a local restaurant. Matheson invited Musk and his wife to a dinner, one that Musk would never forget. The fare was simple and honest: grilled fish with eggplant, the skin charred to a crisp but the inside moist and buttery. The meal was topped off by a straightforward panna cotta.
“It was completely different than what I learned in New York, where you’d spend six hours preparing and cooking something,” says Musk. “Hugo probably started thirty minutes before we ate. It was a more casual, simple way of cooking, with incredible-quality ingredients and a very simple but intense technique for cooking.” Musk begged Matheson for a job in his restaurant, and for the next year he worked there as a line cook — ten dollars an hour — absorbing that attitude and technique.
In March 2004, Matheson and the Musks [Kimbal and his wife] opened their own restaurant in that style. The name reflected its lack of pretention: The Kitchen.
The pair opened another restaurant, The Kitchen Upstairs, which applied the same culinary philosophy to a cocktail lounge concept. But a year later, Musk grew restless. Restaurants don’t quite scale the way software companies do, and it made him feel listless and frustrated. He left Matheson to the run the shop and took a job as chief executive of a social networking startup, OneRiot.
It was familiar ground for him, and he toiled away there for five years as they attempted to carve out a niche in the social mapping space. He lost interest, but stayed on out of loyalty to the company’s investors. He missed the food scene.
“If you’ve ever done something you love and go do something you like,” Musk mused, “it’s like chewing on sawdust.”
A near-death experience shook him from his funk. On Valentine’s Day 2010, he broke his neck tubing down a ski slope on a family vacation in Jackson Hole. He was paralyzed for three days, and braved a risky surgery to install a section of metal spine in his neck. He spent two months healing. He enlisted his friend Tobias Peggs ― who is now the co-founder and chief executive of Square Roots ― to take over OneRiot so he could return to The Kitchen.
Musk came back with a clearer, more focused mission for his company: to build communities through food. They launched a new concept, Next Door, to bring The Kitchen’s fresh food to the masses with pub-like restaurants that serve burgers and other classic American fare. That has now grown to five locations in Colorado. Another Next Door is scheduled to open in Memphis next January. Musk wants to keep expanding the chain throughout the country, targeting the shopping malls where casual-dining eateries like TGI Friday’s and Chili’s reign supreme.
“People still have to sit down at TGI Friday’s because that’s all they’ve got,” Musk said. “We’re hoping to come in and provide a solution to landlords that’ll complete the picture, where you’ll have a Next Door, a Chipotle and a Whole Foods right next to each other. Or a Next Door, a Chipotle and a Walmart that has a ton of fresh food in it.”
In many ways, he sees Next Door as his version of Tesla’s Model 3, the auto company’s $35,000 electric car that made history when it notched nearly half a million pre-orders earlier this year. When Elon Musk first outlined his long-term plan for Tesla a decade ago, he envisioned whetting the public’s palate for an electric car with a flashy luxury sedan, the Model S, before rolling out a model for the masses. In following through with that plan, he effectively revived the long-dead electric car, and prompted virtually every major automaker to scramble to create competitors.
“People wanted the electric car for at least two decades, then Tesla came along and showed them how it’s done,” Kimbal Musk said. “The Kitchen is doing that for real food.”
If Elon Musk is building a clean energy empire, then Kimbal Musk is building the sustainable food empire to match.
Asked on Monday whether The Kitchen would consider buying one of the startups that go through Square Roots’ accelerator program, the younger Musk said the firm is “always looking for new ways to expand its impact and further its mission.” In other words: Maybe!
And Tesla, too, continues to come up against hurdles, facing two federal probes and repeatedly missing delivery targets. But as investors have learned time and time again, it’s rarely smart to bet against a Musk.
“There are some restaurants already doing this, and the idea is catching on faster than I would have thought,” Dickson Despommier, an emeritus professor of microbiology at Columbia University who hosts a podcast on indoor farming, told HuffPost. “But the Musks of the world, thank God, they’re able to cobble together enough money to make a difference.”