At the age of just 30, Saskia Thornton is the director of marketing and strategy for Mad Millie — the rapidly growing make-your-own-food kit business. We quizzed her about cheesemaking, finding inspiration and a typical day in the Auckland office.
How long have you been with Mad Millie?
Since the beginning — I was Mad Millie’s first employee, back in 2010. Mad Millie is owned by iMake [a company that produces kits for making alcoholic beverages], and I did a few projects for the company during my marketing studies at university. When I finished uni, Peter Eastwood, the company’s founder, said he’d like me to undertake another project investigating cheesemaking.
What did that investigation involve?
I went to cheese making classes, played around in my kitchen at home to develop recipes, and then worked out what was going to go into each cheesemaking kit. It was a really cool project. The initial six months of research turned into a year, and then we launched Mad Millie and I took on a full-time role managing the business.
Where did the name Mad Millie come from?
We just thought it was kind of quirky — it evokes a picture of your slightly mad aunt pottering around in the kitchen making cheese!
Aside from cheesemaking kits, what else does Mad Millie produce?
Lots! We now have a number of different cheesemaking kits, including Italian, Fresh Cheeses and Specialty Cheeses. Plus there’s our Greek Yoghurt kit and our Cultured Butter kit. We’ve also recently introduced a Vegan Cheese kit, and a few other dairy-free options, such as a Coconut Yoghurt kit and a Tofu kit. And we have fermented kits (sourdough, kimchi and so on), sausage-making kits, and cider and ginger beer-making kits.
What’s your most popular product?
Cheese is still pretty popular, though we recently launched a gin kit which has been really successful. And the sauerkraut crock has done amazingly well.
What do you think has been behind the company’s success?
We wanted to help people take control over what they were eating and what they were feeding their families. When we launched the brand, back in 2010, we spoke a lot about relearning lost arts; the things your grandmother used to know. I think that appealed to a lot of people.
There’s been a bit of a renaissance of people wanting to make things such as their own sourdough and sauerkraut at home — why do you think this is?
We’ve been controlled by mass food producers for so long now that I think people have just become fed up. And people have become a lot more sceptical about what actually is good food and what’s not. The only way you can guarantee what’s in something is by making it yourself, and I think we’ve been successful in tapping into that desire.
How do you come up with new ideas for products?
I’m always following food trends and seeing what’s going on in the world. Gin is very popular at the moment, especially in Europe, so I thought making your own gin with special botanicals was something that would go down well with people. The other angle I take is looking for expensive, popular foods that are actually cheap to make at home — sauerkraut is a perfect example of that.
Have you always been a keen cook?
I’ve definitely become more of a keen cook as I’ve gotten older. But in a way not being a particularly accomplished cook helped with the business; I made the kits very easy because I knew that’s what I would need. I always say that if you can bake a cake, you can use one of our kits; it’s just following a simple recipe.
Do you have any top tips for beginner cheesemakers?
The milk you use is really important — the better quality the milk, the more fat it contains and the fresher it is the better result you’ll get. You can’t make a good cheese without good raw ingredients.
What does a typical day at Mad Millie involve for you?
Lots of meetings! Though we also do a lot of tastings. These days we have a technical team doing trials, so it’s not just me pottering about in my kitchen at home.
What do you like most about your job?
We export a lot of our kits to Australia, and a small amount to the US and the UK — we’re looking at growing those markets in the future. The variety is great — I’m involved in everything from new product development to pricing and working out what markets to sell in. It’s a fun industry to be in.