Kimbal Musk, co-founder of The Kitchen restaurants and The Kitchen Community, a non-profit organization that has established nearly 300 school Learning Gardens, is working to spread his philosophy of the power of good food and good drink to connect people as family, friends and community.
While Elon Musk has made a name for himself in moving people as co-founder, CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors, and founder and CEO of SpaceX, his younger brother Kimbal is more focused on the Earth and the food it produces. Kimbal co-founded The Kitchen restaurants to serve food and drink from local farmers, ranchers and suppliers for the sustainable enjoyment of the whole community. Part of this community establishment includes a commitment to environmentally-friendly practices, including composting, wind power, eco-friendly packaging and recycling.
Kimbal also helped co-found the Learning Gardens that serve as outdoor classrooms and experiential play-spaces that connect kids to real food and empower them to make healthier food choices. The nearly 300 Learning Gardens in schools, which impact about 150,000 children daily, are designed to be places that encourage students to learn and teachers to teach.
Kimbal Musk sat down with Urban Ag News to talk about the “community through food” philosophy and the impact it is having on suppliers, patrons, children and communities.
UAN: The philosophy of the founders of The Kitchen is “community through food.” Can you briefly explain this philosophy in how it is expressed through your company’s restaurants and the cities in which the restaurants are located?
Musk: For me “community through food” is the essence of gathering around the table and sharing good food and drink to connect us as family, friends and a community. One example of “community through food” in motion is our family meals that we provide our staff after each lunch and dinner service. They gather around the community table (something we feature in every one of our restaurants) and eat food together that is prepared family-style. Our food and drink is sourced from the local communities where we operate, supporting farmers and local purveyors to the tune of millions of dollars a year.
While there are many innovations going on, we have lost touch with the very basic idea of what food is. We need to get back to what we actually should eat. What nourishes our bodies, our community and our planet. And then innovate from there.
UAN: In how many cities are your restaurants located and how many more cities are you planning to open restaurants?
Musk: Our goal is 1,000 cities by the end of 2025. We are impacting 47 cities across the U.S. right now with both the Learning Gardens and our restaurants. We are rapidly expanding every week.
UAN: Your company puts great emphasis on purchasing fresh food from its suppliers. On average, percentage wise, how much of the food used in the restaurants is purchased locally? Please define what you consider to be a “local” supplier.
Musk: We measure our impact on the local food and produce ecosystem by investing in a supply chain that we define in three tiers.
Tier one is locally farmed produce, bakers, ranchers and other purveyors that are within driving distance from our restaurants.
Tier two is relationship based, not necessarily local, such as our fishmonger in Maine or our Alaskan seafood purveyor.
Tier three is the traditional supply chain which enables out-of-season produce (natural and organic whenever possible) to be brought in from around the world.
Tiers one and two account for approximately 80 percent of the menu at our bistro locations and around 50 percent at our Next Door casual dining restaurants.
UAN: On average, percentage wise, how much of the food used in the restaurants is organically certified? Is it much easier to find organic food in some states and/or regions than others?
Musk: The majority of the food served at our restaurant is organic, but even when it’s not certified organic it’s food from purveyors and farmers who we know and trust.
UAN: How important is it for your company to buy local, fresh food than buying organic food that is not locally produced?
Musk: Our mission is to strengthen communities through food and that means working with local farmers and other purveyors that we have a real connection with.
UAN: For your restaurant patrons, how important is it that the food served is purchased locally vs. food that is organically certified? Do you see much difference in how your restaurant patrons feel depending on customer demographics (age, gender, marital status, etc.) vs. location demographics (city size, East vs. West, etc.)?
Musk: Purchasing locally and scaling local is something we are committed to. We source locally to support our local community. We do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because of demographics or sales. We have been successful with this impact model and believe that our guests see our passion through our delicious and carefully prepared food.
UAN: Have you had a difficult time finding local growers who can meet the produce needs of your restaurants?
Musk: Of course. Locally sourcing food is not easy, but we are committed to supporting our farmers. They need people who are going to be around and are going to buy their product not just today, but next week as well.
When we started over a decade ago, Colorado’s local farming industry was valued at around $5 million. Today, it’s a $20 million industry. The Kitchen restaurants are the biggest purchaser of local produce in the state.
UAN: Are you trying to promote organic production practices to the local growers you are working with?
Musk: Yes, but the local growers that we work with are, for the most part, already growing produce sustainably and organically. It’s the farmers in the United States that are holding tight to industrial farming practices that we are working with to transition to organic.
Maria Rodale and I wrote an op-ed, “Lost in transition: Why are farmers resistant to organic?”, in the Des Moines Register highlighting the problem and the opportunity.
UAN: Do you purchase much produce from greenhouse and other controlled environment agricultural operations (i.e., vertical farms)? Do you see your company working with more of these types of suppliers in the future?
Musk: In the future we will be sourcing from many more controlled environments!
UAN: Can you explain the relationship between The Kitchen restaurants and the non-profit organization The Kitchen Community.
Musk: The Kitchen Restaurant Group and The Kitchen Community are a unique combination of for-profit and non-profit enterprises that work in tandem to strengthen communities through food by accelerating a real food culture at scale.
We operate a unique, scalable model where The Kitchen Community non-profit organization paves the way for change and creates immediate and long-lasting impact. The Kitchen Restaurant Group provides sustainability, demonstrates long-term commitment and, in turn, donates a portion of the proceeds back to the non-profit. In a ‘real food culture,’ everyone knows where food comes from and how it is made. Real food is food we trust to nourish ourselves, our community and our planet.
UAN: Since its founding in 2011, The Kitchen Community has built over 200 Learning Gardens in schools in Colorado, Illinois, California and Tennessee. Are you looking to expand these gardens beyond those cities in which your restaurants are located?
Musk: We now have 290 Learning Gardens in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Memphis and we are always looking to expand our impact to reach more cities every day.
UAN: Is there any specific number of gardens that you are trying to build in any one city?
Musk: Yes, our aim is 100 Learning Gardens in a single region saturating that community with healthy change and creating impact at scale. By building Learning Gardens at scale, we can accomplish three important goals: community visibility, networks for success and efficiency.
UAN: Have there been any efforts to measure the impact The Learning Gardens have had on the participating children’s and their families’ eating habits?
Musk: We recently worked closely with a research firm called Mission Measurement and discovered some wonderful news regarding the impact of our Learning Gardens located in Denver and Chicago. A national impact summary of the report findings can be found online.
One of the key findings was that 23 percent of students actively involved in a Learning Garden are more likely to eat vegetables. That’s an incredible number if you think about the impact on a national scale.
UAN: Are organic production practices taught to the students who participate in the Learning Gardens program?
Musk: While our garden educators host planting and harvesting events in the Learning Garden, we actually have a scalable model where we teach the teachers. We host teaching workshops for teachers to maximize their Learning Gardens throughout the school year. It is the teachers who share their knowledge of sustainable and organic growing and eating practices.
We don’t create curriculum, but we recommend the best available resources for a variety of subjects.
UAN: Once a Learning Garden has been set up and operating at a school does The Kitchen Community continue to be involved at the school or is the program turned over to the school faculty to administer?
Musk: Our garden educators are full-time resources in each region that are closely involved with the long-term sustainability of the Learning Garden. They work directly with the garden lead at each school to ensure the Learning Garden continues to be a beautiful and useful space for the whole school once it is built and years into the future.
For more: The Kitchen Community, 1980 8th St., Boulder, CO 80302; (720) 263-0501; https://thekitchencommunity.org.
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; firstname.lastname@example.org.