Kimbal Musk | Crain's Twin Cities

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Kimbal Musk

Background:  

Kimbal Musk co-founded The Kitchen with Hugo Matheson in Boulder, Colorado, in 2004. In the 13 years since, they’ve expanded the restaurant with two separate concepts, Next Door and Hedge Row. Their restaurant group now includes 13 restaurants across three states.

In March, the Schwab Foundation included Musk on its list of Social Entrepreneurs in 2017 for his work with The Kitchen and The Kitchen Community, the restaurant group’s nonprofit arm, which promotes healthy, sustainable food systems in communities across the country.

Musk also co-founded and serves as the executive chair of Square Roots, an indoor farming accelerator. He serves on the boards of his brother Elon Musk's companies, Tesla and SpaceX, as well as Chipotle Mexican Grill.

The Mistake:

I convinced myself that my business couldn’t scale.

Back in the 90s, I was working in the internet business with my brother. I wasn’t that excited about tech and when the bubble burst, I decided to follow my passion for food. I went to cooking school in New York. After graduation, I wanted to give the food industry a try and start a restaurant. So, I drove around the U.S., and I found Boulder. That’s when Hugo and I founded The Kitchen.

We worked with local farmers and served simple, real food. This was in the mid-2000s before the farm-to-table movement really took off, and what we were doing hit a nerve. It proved to be enormously successful.

This is where I made the mistake. I didn’t think you could scale something like The Kitchen. We worked with so many farmers, and we changed the menu every day. It was the definition of something that couldn’t scale.

I had this little business on the side that was my passion, that was resonating with people, but I didn’t see the opportunity. For about seven years, I went back to tech and was kind of miserable.

Had we scaled earlier, we could have really seized on the farm-to-table movement.

The Lesson:

If you can do something that you love, that can reach a lot of people, you should figure out how to do it. If you don’t, someone else will, and the opportunity will be lost.

I realized that after I went down a ski hill on an inner tube in 2010. The tube flipped, I landed on my head, and I broke my neck. I was paralyzed on my left side for about three days. I remember it was on a Tuesday night, just as I was about to go into surgery that I thought, “Forget this. I have all this experience in tech and all these skills related to scaling businesses; I should just apply it all to food.” I woke up the next morning, called my co-founder, and told him we needed to figure out how to scale The Kitchen.

That’s when we started work on what became Next Door, which is basically a more affordable version of The Kitchen. We now reach more than a million people per year in the Denver area alone, and we purchase food from all-local farmers. I think we’re doing great.

Basically, Hugo and I figured out how to do it. The problem was largely solved through automation. There’s an incredible amount of it in food now. We can empower an 18-year-old to cook like a two-star Michelin chef within an hour.

We’re catching back up, but I think we missed a business opportunity. Had we scaled earlier, we could have really seized on the farm-to-table movement. It’s its own category now. We have 13 restaurants, but if we scaled earlier, we could have had 30 at this point.

The food continues to be simple, real food prepared as close as possible to the farm where it was grown. It’s a beautiful blending of technology and cooking that only happened because I embraced scale.

Kimbal Musk is on Twitter at @kimbal and Instagram at @KimbalMusk.

Photo courtesy of The Kitchen.

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