How Elon Musk’s Brother Brought Tech Lessons Into ‘The Kitchen’

May 17, 2016, 7:31 PM UTC

Elon Musk, CEO of both Tesla Motors and SpaceX, isn’t the only brother in his family with big ideas, but his brother Kimbal appears more interested by digging deeper on this planet for the time being.

Musk—Kimbal, that is— is the mastermind behind The Kitchen, a small but growing number of farm-to-table style restaurants from Boulder to Chicago, as well as The Kitchen Community, an organization that has planted vegetable gardens at more than 200 schools nationwide.

A key difference between the two enterprises is that The Kitchen Community is a non-profit while The Kitchen, the restaurant, is a for-profit operation, which Musk further characterized as “philanthropically-driven.”

At Fortune‘s Brainstorm E summit in Carlsbad, Calif. on Tuesday, Musk asserted that both of these companies are financially sustainable and scalable in that he based their business models on the lessons he’s learned from working in the tech industry.

“The best training ground in the world is Silicon Valley and the tech space,” said Musk, stressing that The Kitchen Community is a business that happens to be a non-profit. “We take investments like any for-profit, but soon we’ll be a sustainable non-profit. That’s the only way to run a sustainable business, for-profit or non-profit.”

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Musk became involved with constructing gardens within schools following a serious spinal injury in 2010, but his love for food was established long before that. Nevertheless, Musk admitted that when he graduated college, he “couldn’t not work on the Internet.”

“I always loved food actually, and I like technology,” Musk remarked, adding later, “You bring people together with food. You connect them and tie the fabric of society together through food.”

It was after September 11, 2001 and cooking for firefighters in New York City for six weeks that propelled him back into the food industry, full-time.

“It taught me what food could do for the community,” Musk reflected. “After that, I felt like ‘I need to do a restaurant.’ I was much more successful than I ever expected. But tech companies are really ahead. Anyone who thinks restaurants are hard should try working at a tech company.”

Following his neck injury, Musk helped establish The Kitchen Community, which he admitted had a number of hurdles to overcome—namely that school gardens don’t scale well. Musk lamented that school districts typically don’t like them because they are hard to maintain. Thus, The Kitchen Community architected a scalable version of a school garden that can be adapted from asphalt to rooftops.

Five years later, Musk says The Kitchen Community will have helped plant as many as 300 school gardens by the end of this year. Musk quipped that his team went from “begging people to take our school gardens” to having to sift through hundreds of applications.

The lesson for maintaining scalability, he noted, was that The Kitchen Community won’t approve an application unless at least 100 schools commit. Musk rattled off a number of benefits, including cutting back on maintenance costs for gardens scattered across wider distances.

Musk, who is also on the boards of both Tesla and SpaceX, compared running both of his own operations to that of the electric car maker, explaining, “At Tesla, we don’t go into a community and think we’re going to sell one or two cars.”

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