The leap from Silicon Valley to farmhouse kitchen might not seem like a natural one but for Kimbal Musk, it felt perfectly natural. Musk — who was an early investor in brother Elon Musk's X.com (now part of Paypal), and sits on the board of Tesla and SpaceX — worked in tech for years but says he always harbored a love for cooking and a passion for nutrition.
After graduating from culinary school in 2001, Musk opened his first restaurant — The Kitchen — in Boulder, Colo. in 2004. In true Colorado fashion, the concept is "garden-to-table" — an urban bistro in an eco-friendly space offering $17 orders of "Mushrooms on Toast" and $27 Colorado Striped Bass.
"The Kitchen was a really great concept, it just wasn't at the price point that made it accessible to people," notes Musk. "People could visit occasionally, and some people were coming regularly, it just wasn't a novel concept for every customer."
"Food is the new internet."
Musk's frustration began to outweigh his passion just as the lure of the tech world began to beckon again. After spending a couple of years focusing on opening and running the The Kitchen, he returned to the world of tech, taking on the role of CEO at a company in Boulder called OneRiot.
Then he broke his neck.
The accident happened on a ski trip with family in 2010: Musk flipped off a tube, and landed head-first in the snow. It was during the recovery, which required months of laying in a bed, that he began to renew his passion for food.
"After I broke my neck, I began thinking more about The Kitchen: How can we come up with some way to make real food more affordable? Food that's locally-grown, if possible, fundamentally nourishing to the body, nourishing to the planet."
He opened his first attempt at more affordable, nourishing food next door to The Kitchen in 2011. Fittingly, it's called Next Door and it sources nearly half of its food from farms within driving distance. Locally-grown ingredients, says Musk, are more important to him than produce that is "certified organic from Mexico."
Equally important to the sourcing, though, is the price point. Everything at Next Door costs less than $10. The concept has been so popular in Boulder (Musk says that location serves 10,000 people a year) that it's now expanding. He's already opened two additional locations in Denver.
In early 2017, Musk will open a new Next Door location outside of Colorado — in Memphis, Tennessee's Crosstown neighborhood. It was during a visit to Memphis' Shelby Farms Park — a 4,500-acre park in the center of the city — that he dreamed up his newest concept.
"This is a park that's meant for all of Memphis and the population of the city lies across the income spectrum — it's not located in a wealthy part of town," says Musk.
Musk initially planned to focus his efforts on opening Memphis' Next Door location. But when he stumbled upon a 2,000-square-foot building in Shelby Farms Park, an entirely different concept began percolating.
Musk sits on Chipotle's board.
"When we look at the restaurants that serve most people in Memphis, it's places like McDonald's and other fast food joints," he says. So he began toying with the idea of opening a restaurant that, like Next Door, serves mostly local, nutritious food — but at an even cheaper price point.
The Kitchenette concept in Shelby Farms Park will serve as a research and development center for this latest idea. "Every single day, we will test an item priced at under five dollars," says Musk.
Over time, Musk's goal is to build a menu made up of the most popular $5 items, and eventually expand the concept. "It's going to be a really fun experiment," he says.
But just because Kitchenette's price point will pit it against places like McDonald's and Burger King doesn't mean Musk considers it to be in the same category. "We don't like the comparison to fast food," he says. "That bothers us a little."
Instead, Musk says Kitchenette, slated to open in August, will serve "non-industrial" food: "The idea behind fast food is great — people want convenience. This is a good alternative to fast food." He and his team are, for now, calling it a "grab-and-go cafe." It will operate next to the gift shop at the visitor's center in Shelby Farms Park, and offer sandwiches, salads, and soups for park-goers to "feed their families real food."
There's been a lot of media hype over this idea of an under-$5, health-focused restaurant competing in the fast-food space. This space has so far been dominated by forward thinking chefs like Roy Choi, Daniel Patterson (Locol), and José Andrés (Beefsteak). But for now, Musk is more focused on scaling the Next Door concept than opening additional Kitchenette locations (he says none other than the Memphis location are yet in the works).
"We want to replace all the T.G.I. Friday's, Applebee's — at a price point that is arguably even lower than those guys," he says. "We still serve burgers, salads and so forth, but it's local. It's healthy. And it's inexpensive."
"This is the opportunity of our generation."
It's easy to compare the way Musk talks about food to the way his brother, Elon, discusses technology and transportation. Just as Elon aimed to change the face of automobiles, making eco-friendly — but still aesthetically-pleasing — electric cars a possibility, Kimbal wants to make cheap, healthy food the norm. To Kimbal, food is a largely undiscovered frontier — during a TedX talk in Memphis, he went so far as to describe it as "the new Internet."
"Food is the opportunity of our generation," he says. That's because the industry remains largely unchanged, despite advances in technology.
"Today, the companies selling us food are the same companies as the pre-internet era," says Musk, who notes that even forward-thinking companies, like Chipotle (he sits on the board) were founded before the internet became what it is today.
"The internet changes how you interact," he says. "People are driving differently through Tesla, thinking differently through the Internet. One industry that hasn't been impacted, is food."