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Kimbal Musk Has Seen A Lot. But Never Anything Like COVID-19

Kimbal Musk used his tech fortune to become one of the world’s most famous food evangelists. Does this Boulder-based restaurateur have the formula to help guide us through the age of COVID-19?

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On the Monday of the week that America began to fall apart, Kimbal Musk drove the few miles from his house to downtown Boulder and had a martini with his wife, Christiana, an environmental activist. That day in March would be their last date night out for a while. The spread of COVID-19 was shutting down entire countries, medical centers were being overloaded in Europe, and investors were driving financial markets down. As Kimbal and Christiana looked around the empty bar inside a friend’s restaurant, the two were witnessing the new reality that would soon envelop the nation.

The 47-year-old multimillionaire, who made the bulk of his fortune in Silicon Valley, was not unaccustomed to the threat of total disaster. He had survived the near destruction of too many businesses to count. There was the possibility of bankruptcy during the Great Recession and the time in 2010 when a broken neck left him paralyzed for three days. The idea that he now was facing a “zombie apocalypse,” as he called the sudden economic meltdown, had put him in a defiant mood. “I am not panicked,” he told me a few days after his martini date, between calls with investors and executives from the Kitchen Restaurant Group, the umbrella corporation that oversees the 15 restaurants he co-owns nationwide. During the past decade, Musk has become one of the most visible champions of locally-grown food in the world and a celebrity in his adopted hometown of Boulder. Now, as it was for so many others, the pandemic was challenging whether he could keep it all together.

He’d phoned his brother a couple of days earlier. Elon Musk had wanted to keep his Tesla plants in California and New York open, but he was finally suspending operations. By that time, Kimbal Musk’s Colorado restaurants had been forced by state order to shut down dining rooms and move entirely to takeout business. More cities would issue similar edicts, which, Musk worried, would slash the restaurant group’s weekly profits by more than two-thirds. He had already furloughed 300 hourly employees and decreased pay for 400 salaried workers. As Musk talked to his brother on the phone, the two reminded each other that they’d been to the brink before. They’d left apartheid-era South Africa and endured the fallout of their parents’ divorce. They’d survived Silicon Valley as twentysomething kids and as fortysomething men. In the end, the Musk brothers always seemed to come out ahead.

They agreed their plan shouldn’t simply be to get through the COVID-19 mess. They needed to make themselves stronger while doing it. And they joked about the Musk family’s rules for dealing with a crisis:

No. 1: Don’t panic.
No. 3: Safety third.
There wasn’t a second rule.

Elon (far left), Kimbal, and Tosca Musk with their mother, Maye, in Spain for Kimbal and Christiana’s wedding in June 2018. Photo courtesy of Chris & Ruth Photography

A few weeks earlier, Musk was eating kale chips and calamari at the Boulder outpost of Next Door American Eatery, one of the restaurants he co-owns with friend and chef Hugo Matheson. Tall and lean, Musk looked like a handsome, stylish version of the character Woody from Toy Story. He was wearing a Resistol straw hat, a checkered Western-style shirt, a Patek Philippe watch, Adidas sneakers, dark jeans, and a belt fastened with an enormous handmade silver buckle that included the date of a party he’d thrown three days earlier in Denver. “You’ve caught me on an interesting day,” he said.

Musk was about to announce his return as CEO of his restaurant group, which had ex­panded since he’d co-founded the Kitchen in Boulder in 2004 after being involved in the founding of several successful tech startups. One of them was Zip2, an early online map and directory hybrid; another would become part of PayPal. In 1999, after the $307 million sale of Zip2—which he’d founded with his brother—Musk left Silicon Valley to train at the French Culinary Institute in New York City (now known as the International Culinary Center). He ended up in Colorado two years later with his first wife, artist Jen Lewin. That he had moved into the “food space,” as he calls it, and eventually turned one Boulder restaurant into a formidable chain of locally sourced eateries across the country made him something of a star in the industry. The New York Times wrote about him, and he has appeared everywhere from the Today Show to CNBC.

A fan of author Michael Pollan and his real food movement, Musk built a miniature empire over the past decade and a half that focused mainly on ingredients sourced from local growers and ranchers. With his restaurant business expanding in Colorado, Musk created the nonprofit Big Green, which has built hundreds of learning gardens for schoolchildren in underserved populations across the country. In 2016, he co-founded Square Roots, an indoor urban farming accelerator in Brooklyn, and he has invested heavily into a portfolio of food-related projects while also developing partnerships with foundations and governments in several cities across the country. Three years ago, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship—a sister organization to the World Economic Forum—named Musk one of its social entrepreneurs of the year.

Musk travels throughout the world, giving speeches and interviews about how he believes his philosophy “nourishes the consumer, nourishes the farmer, nourishes the community, and nourishes the planet” and how his ideas can fix much of what is ailing society, particularly in inner cities. “He’s interested solely in world-changing projects,” says his friend and Square Roots co-founder Tobias Peggs. “Kimbal moves 100 miles per hour, and sometimes, you just kind of try to keep up.”

By late winter of this year, before the pandemic, that momentum had encouraged Musk to return as CEO of his restaurants, a position he’d held before stepping away in 2018 to focus on other investments and on all three of his real food companies. “I could live on the beach,” Musk says, “but that doesn’t make me happy.”

Though he’d remained the Kitchen’s chairman and pushed the business’ expansion into new markets, the restaurant group had begun to stumble. Two venues had closed in the past two years—one in Glendale, off Colorado Boulevard, and another in Memphis. A second Memphis restaurant was operating under mediocre reviews and appeared to be teetering.

Even so, he was in demand. He was set to give the keynote at Expo West, a major food trade show scheduled this year in Anaheim, California, where Musk was looking forward to proselytizing to a crowd that would include food entrepreneurs and executives from Whole Foods Market. Square Roots had raised millions in capital and recently signed a contract with the food-distributor giant Gordon Food Service. A cluster of hydroponically outfitted shipping containers had been set up in a Michigan parking lot and was already growing thousands of pounds of mint, basil, and chives.

The hopeful talk of expansion and turnarounds, in hindsight, now seems both naive and insignificant. Expo West was eventually canceled because of concerns about COVID-19, a disappointment at the time that portended far worse things in Musk’s universe. Restaurants and many other businesses most certainly will fail because of the pandemic. It’s difficult to imagine Musk will be immune from the fallout.

Musk at Welby Community School in Denver. Photo courtesy of Big Green

Growing up in South Africa, the middle of three kids sharing time between divorced parents, Musk liked two things: cooking and selling. When he was a young boy living in a suburb of Pretoria, Musk painted Easter eggs and went door to door in his upper-middle-class neighborhood, offering the eggs at 20 times his cost. If neighbors balked at the price, he explained the money was supporting a budding capitalist. He sold every egg.

Musk started cooking when he was 12 and discovered his food could bring his family together. He’d throw together some fish and greens, maybe chop some potatoes and make fries for Elon and their younger sister, Tosca. “I could create something, and it made people happy,” he says.

Despite those memories, he says, “it was not a good childhood.” When he was just a few years old, he witnessed the emotional and physical abuse his mother, Maye, suffered under his father, an engineer named Errol Musk, stories about whom are detailed in Elon Musk’s eponymous biography. In the book, Elon calls his father “an odd duck” who was “good at making life miserable—that’s for sure.” Kimbal simply calls him a “very deranged man.” Musk and his brother lived with their father for a time as teenagers, though they rarely saw him.

South Africa in the 1980s was a threatening place: The system of apartheid was crumbling, and the government was in disarray. Violence was everywhere. “You kind of lived in fear all the time,” Musk says. “You think that someone is going to try to kill you every day, all the time. There was a low value of human life.”

Musk and some friends traveled to anti-apartheid rallies in Johannesburg, the South African capital. One day, when he was a teenager, Musk says he saw a man get stabbed in the head with a knife and die. The teenage Musk stepped into the dead man’s blood, and as he fled, dark red shoe prints marked his trail.

Elon left South Africa in 1989 to attend college at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and Kimbal followed a year later. The move was transformative. “It was like being let out of prison and everyone wants to give you flowers and give you a hug, and the sun is shining the whole time,” he says. “After basically coming from tribal warfare, this was the nicest group of people I’d ever met.”

He studied business. Kimbal and his brother read newspapers together, identifying interesting people—bankers, baseball team executives, journalists—and then trying to set up meetings with them. While Elon eventually moved to the United States and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to finish his undergraduate degree and attend graduate school, Kimbal became a franchisee with a painting company and earned money for his tuition and rent. He became so successful that he began to save money. He interned at a bank—what he’d imagined to be his dream job—but found the atmosphere stifling.

Elon earned his master’s degree at Penn in 1995 and then moved to Northern California. Again, Kimbal followed. The internet was in its infancy back then, and Elon was playing with the idea of linking online map directions with businesses, like an early Google Maps. Kimbal became a co-founder, and the brothers, along with a third partner, developed Zip2, a city guide that later counted the New York Times and the Hearst Corporation as clients. Kimbal was the salesman of the two, the charismatic counterbalance to the more reserved, geeky Elon. Everything at Zip2 was a shoestring operation. They showered at the YMCA. They had fistfights in their office when they disagreed. In 1999, when Kimbal was 26, Compaq acquired their business for $307 million.

After the sale, Elon continued to work in Silicon Valley; Kimbal needed to step away. “You’re just shitting bricks all the time,” he says. “You do enough [startups] and it just wires your system where you’re constantly worried.” So he went to cooking school in New York City. He met Lewin, fell in love, and got married. Musk invested in another of his brother’s ventures, an online financial services and email payments company that later became part of PayPal, which was acquired in 2002 by eBay for $1.5 billion in stock.

On a cross-country trip that same year, Musk and Lewin discovered Boulder. The pair was struck by the calmness of the city and enthused by the region’s history as an incubator for natural brands like Celestial Seasonings and Wild Oats. Musk and his wife met Matheson, a veteran of London’s famous River Cafe who’d moved to Boulder a few years earlier. “By that time, Kimbal was extremely successful, but he didn’t talk about any of it,” Matheson says. “He was just a guy who had an intense love for cooking and for creating food that not only tasted good but had a mission.” The trio co-founded the Kitchen in 2004.

Six years later, on February 14, 2010, Musk was on vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with his family when an inner tube he was riding down a hill flipped and sent him headfirst onto the ice. The resulting impact crushed the area between Musk’s C6 and C7 vertebrae—the base of his neck—and left him without feeling in his arms and legs.

Just two years earlier, he’d survived near bankruptcy as Tesla struggled to hit target goals for its first battery-operated vehicle, the Roadster. Now the company was just months from going public. Musk’s Boulder restaurant had taken off, and he’d begun running a real-time online search business, OneRiot—jumping back into the world he’d desperately wanted to escape just years earlier.

“I felt ashamed,” he remembers of his time in the hospital. “People projected on me what I’m supposed to be. It’s very complicated, a spiral of anxiety. I felt like I’d just ended my life. I’m 37 and a quadriplegic.” Motionless in his hospital bed, he had an epiphany: “I thought, my love was food. If I walked again, I’d focus on food and not care what people think. It was a restart to my life.”

A doctor suggested surgery on Musk’s damaged spine, and three days later, he regained feeling and movement in his extremities. It would be another two months of bed rest, then a lengthy, painful rehabilitation, before he’d walk again.

When he returned to the Kitchen, he focused on expanding upon the lessons he’d learned in Silicon Valley and bringing them to the food industry. But life hadn’t gone back to normal. He and his wife divorced. His brother had run into production issues again at Tesla and then at SpaceX, problems that trickled down to him as a board member and major stockholder in both companies.

The only things going well were his restaurants: Within five years, he opened eight establishments, all of which were based on the locally sourced philosophy. Big Green came online in 2011, followed by Square Roots five years later, which garnered national coverage for its use of shipping containers, hydroponics, and hyper-specific LED lighting to grow the equivalent of two acres of produce within a 200-square-foot container. Hundreds of millennial urbanites applied to be among Musk’s first farmers, learning everything from how to set humidity levels to how to control sunup-sundown schedules through an app connected to each container. Musk has promoted the Square Roots project as a way to move agriculture to the heart of urban communities, where fresh greens are not easily procured, and has said the business can be set up in any city worldwide that has a Wi-Fi connection.

“Some people like to talk about the good things they can do, but Kimbal is the rare person who actually walks the walk,” says Peggs, his Square Roots co-founder and a former Walmart executive who befriended Musk more than a decade ago. Musk has, according to Peggs, a remarkable ability to quickly shift his attention from one task to another, often within the same conversation. “In five minutes, he’s giving you the 30,000-foot view of the company’s future, and then he’s down to three feet, telling you how to get better taste out of Genovese basil,” Peggs says. “There’s no one else like him. It’s remarkable.”

Photo by Chayce Lanphear

Musk didn’t just give up his old life after the tubing accident. He admitted that the world he’d constructed for himself had been flawed, that he was chasing the idea of something rather than the thing itself. Despite having left Silicon Valley to escape the anxiety, he realized he’d become addicted to the particular mindset of the valley, the roller coaster of the startup world. “One day you think you’re going to die,” he says, “and the next day you think you’re going to take over the world.”

Sitting near the bar at one of his Boulder restaurants this past winter, there was an aura of unfinished business about Musk. He has a message written on the wall at the Kitchen group’s headquarters that encourages employees to “move fast and break stuff.” Silicon Valley axioms, apparently, die hard. At that moment, however, Musk was more contemplative about how this next move would impact all the ones that come after. Yes, there were restaurants to run, but it seemed Musk was thinking more in terms of his legacy. “I do have an ego,” he said. “Everyone has an ego. But I don’t think mine’s attached to my businesses anymore.”

He now assesses his life in one-year chunks. He makes a full accounting of who he is and what he’s done in the past 365 days. It’s a simple equation: Where is he today? Where was he back then? He considers the relationships he has with his second wife—whom he married in 2018—his three children, and his stepdaughter. He thinks about the connections he’s made in his life, the places he’s gone. What more can he do? That’s the question that appears to gnaw at him.

When he left his post as CEO of the Kitchen, he felt burned out and wanted to spend more time with his family as well as take on new challenges—whether that was setting up learning gardens in Detroit and Indianapolis, reviewing plans for shipping containers in Michigan, or launching his idea for a worldwide Plant A Seed Day. His time away allowed him to recalibrate things in his mind. “Kimbal’s biggest fear is that he’ll be left alone on a deserted island with a piece of fish and a banana leaf,” Matheson says. “He wants to be working, creating, doing stuff. He wants to be in the middle of things. He loves action.”

“Am I happier with myself?” Musk asks. That’s a fairly complicated question when your goal is to change the way the world consumes its food. “Some people think you have to be willing to sell your soul to get ahead. I’m not going to do that. I never want to lose who I am.”

When Musk listens to a story, he picks out certain details and has the unusual ability to turn difficult facts into a lesson about finding a way out of the depths. Both he and his brother have said running a startup is like “chewing glass while staring into the abyss.” But in his world, there’s always a path. You just have to work hard enough to find it. There’s a book Musk loves, called King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, which has shaped the way he thinks about himself and how he traces his own evolution. The book is marketed as an “introduction to the psychological foundation of a mature, authentic, and revitalized masculinity.” He sees parts of himself in this definition of masculinity—who he’d been, who he was today, the man he wants to be in the future.

“Who’s your family? You look after your family, you look after your friends, and you’re looking after people, rather than yourself,” he says one day this past winter inside a conference room at the Kitchen’s Pearl Street headquarters. His publicist is on the other side of the table. “The hero is the person who goes in and saves the day. That is the young version of me. The warrior is like, ‘OK, we’re ready to fight. Put the weapons on, and let’s go.’ It’s about the war and winning the war and not about yourself,” he says. Musk sees himself as the warrior.

“Honestly,” he says, “I love crisis.”

His publicist winces.

“You don’t love crisis,” she says.

“Maybe ‘love’ is the wrong word,” Musk says.

Around the time he was saying this, COVID-19 had reached the Seattle area. Expo West, the conference at which he was to speak, had been canceled. The reality of the virus’ spread was starting to set in. It was apparent restaurants would suffer, but the magnitude was not yet clear. Musk always outwardly projected a reassuring confidence, but this felt different. “It’s huge,” he said of the virus. “I’m worried about it.”

Musk sent an email to his restaurant staff reminding them to execute good hygiene. That very prudent suggestion now seems almost laughably naive, but that’s where everyone was at the time. A week later, Musk had found his crisis wheelhouse. He played Willie Nelson’s cover of the Pearl Jam song “Just Breathe” on a loop.

Yes, I understand that every life must end
As we sit alone, I know someday we must go
Oh, I’m a lucky man, to count on both hands
The ones I love

“Maybe I am freaking out,” he told me on March 20, during the stock market’s worst week since 2008. He’d already made dramatic moves with the company, promoting takeout dining days before Governor Jared Polis closed Colorado restaurants. Musk furloughed hourly employees and cut his top executives’ paychecks by half. He worried about the financial health of his staff and of other restaurant owners.

A Square Roots indoor garden in New York City. Photo courtesy of Square Roots

He posted on Twitter: “Our govt needs to step in right now to help restaurant owners, staff, and hourly workers. Right. Now.” He’d been pushing Plant A Seed Day and was encouraging families stuck at home to plant seeds together. Square Roots was giving away hundreds of pounds of produce from its Brooklyn shipping container to Rethink Food NYC, an organization that transforms unused food from grocery stores and restaurants into nutritionally dense meals for the needy. Musk worked on plans with other Boulder restaurants to promote takeout menus and help those businesses survive.

On March 17, he closed five restaurants, including one in Highlands Ranch. In an April 7 HuffPost article, several former employees accused Musk of withholding $400 payouts from a “Family Fund” reserved for workers in crisis. Musk’s publicist says the fund was “relatively small,” adding that it wasn’t designed to cover a pandemic. “These are unprecedented times,” the publicist says. “We’re doing the best we can.”

One night, as the crisis deepened and American cities began shutting down, Musk took a walk in the cold. He did yoga at his house in Boulder. He made dinner for his family. “Kimbal just starts chopping an onion,” his wife says. “He sautés the onion, and he goes to the next ingredient and the next ingredient. It brings him back down.”

As Congress battled over unem­ployment benefits and corporate bailouts and emergency economic aid a few days later, Musk worked on strategic plans for the weeks and months ahead. Eventually, he knew he’d be back in his kitchen at home, chopping things, a fire on his range. The culinary juggling act would turn his focus away from the rest of the world, if only for a few moments. He’d be thankful for the distraction. Musk didn’t know what he would cook, but he was sure it would be nourishing and delicious.

A month earlier, on February 15, everything had been different. A line formed outside the Kitchen on Wazee Street in LoDo, 200 or so guests in cowboy hats and denim shirts. Elon Musk showed up, as did venture capitalists and musicians and actors.

Cell phones were collected at the front door, slipped into envelopes for return later. Kimbal Musk wanted everyone present for this moment.

This would be a celebration of life, he told his wife in October when he started planning this party, the 10th anniversary of his broken neck. Back then, he’d spent two months horizontal at home, the world moving on without him. On this night, everyone was there to celebrate him.

Musk had spent hundreds of hours preparing this evening. He put together invitations and chose the Western-chic dress code, the menu (Bolognese, sea bass with braised white beans and kale, roasted chicken with couscous and dried fruit, and vegetable curry), and the 27-song set of Johnny Cash covers he’d sing with his five-piece band and a cast of friends. The party would last well past midnight.

A small riser was set up in the dining room, a wall of black curtains behind it. He’d start with “Hurt,” Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song. On “Ring of Fire,” his publicist would play a trumpet solo atop the restaurant’s bar.

Drinks flowed. Wearing his hat, Musk finally stepped onstage with his Huss & Dalton guitar. There were whoops and applause. Musk thanked his friends for being there to share the moment with him, to share in the past decade. He glowed under the spotlight. He studied the room. His friends cried and laughed and hollered that night. The world was about to change forever, but no one knew it then.

Be grateful, he told his friends as they danced and sang, because you never know when everything might come to an end.

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