After 35 years in the biscuit business, Cookie Time founder Michael Mayell is heading in a new food direction: hemp seeds.

The snack food maker turned social entrepreneur is now advocating a future of hemp smoothies and other edibles.

Christchurch-based Mayell founded Cookie Time in 1983, aged 21, and has been on a "food journey" ever since.

His foray into hemp followed three months of researching the future of food. He's now hooked.


"The amazing thing about this plant is the seed is the most nutritionally complete food on the planet," Mayell says. "I set about to try and understand the future of food and that led to a whole lot of realisation and cognition and it was in that journey that I came across hemp."

Hemp - in the form of hemp seeds - offers potential solutions to two issues he is trying to solve through his philanthropy: making Kiwis healthier and making the country's rivers drinkable.

"Kiwis are under-eating fruit and vegetables, overdosing on macro nutrients and we're not very healthy ... we're overdosing on meat, dairy, wheat, sugar and alcohol," says the 57-year-old.

"We have to do something about the 10 million cows defecating in paddocks and causing the rivers to be undrinkable.

"Hemp is a solution to both of these two challenges."

Mayell wants New Zealand farmers to grow hemp, and envisages a future of "superfood" plant powders which can be exported. "Instead of milk powders we can grow plant powders.

"We have a formidable vegetable that we can grow brilliantly in New Zealand and from that [plant] we can feed ourselves the protein and fats we need, and we've also got an exportable product, particularly if we can generate a product like milk powder."

New Zealanders have been able to grow hemp for about 13 years but it's not yet legal to sell hemp food products, other than for animal food.

Cookie Time's head office and factory shop in Christchurch. Photo / Supplied
Cookie Time's head office and factory shop in Christchurch. Photo / Supplied

The use of hemp seeds for human consumption is set to be legalised at the end of the year, following legalisation in Australia late last year.

Mayell is encouraging everyone he knows to get into selling hemp products when that happens. He's also keen to sell his own hemp products through a planned business venture, likely to be called Hemmmp.

Imagine a hemp-infused cookie or a shot of hemp. That may not be too far off, as Mayell is looking at ways to include hemp in the products made by his other businesses.

Mayell was born in Dunedin and grew up in Christchurch. After Christchurch Boys' High School, he did a six-month stint at Lincoln College, studying towards a property management degree.

"It didn't float my boat and I didn't love it, so I left after the first six months and cleaned 150 toilets at Crown Crystal Glass."

At 18, Mayell wanted to start his own business, but didn't muster the confidence to do so until he was 21. He had $10,000 in the bank and tried two businesses, both of which failed, before he remembered Mrs. Fields' Cookies he had come across in the United States.

"I worked out that to copy Mrs. Fields', which were hot cookie shops in high-foot-traffic malls, would cost $30,000. I only had $5000 now as I'd burnt through $5000 on the two business ideas which failed so I said 'right, I'm doing cookies but if can't copy Mrs. Fields', I know what I'll do - I'll get a baker to bake them and a courier to deliver them instead of having a shop'."

Mayell began selling his cookies, which he and his mother baked in a rented bakery, in 70 Christchurch dairies. They sat on store counters in glass jars - blown by his former boss.

"They were delivered in a plastic bucket; the retailers bought them for 40c and sold them for 50c," he remembers.

"They were an overnight sensation. Five thousand cookies were sold in the first week and $240,000 worth of product was sold in the first year."

My food journey has gone from wanting to make money in 1983 through to Nutrient Rescue with wanting to make a difference.

Today, Cookie Time sells millions of cookies each year.

Four years after their inception, Cookie Time cookies became packaged, in order to sell into petrol stations and increase their shelf life.

In those days, Mayell had ambitions to be a millionaire by the age of 30.

"Basically, I was starting a business for the purpose of achieving financial independence."

It's fair to say he's ticked off that achievement.

In 2003, Mayell and his brother Guy set up the Cookie Time Charitable Trust to help Kiwi kids discover their talents. Then in 2005, after 22 years of Cookie Time, he established One Square Meal, selling meal bars.

Mayell then began social enterprise Nutrient Rescue in 2007, where he spends a large amount of time today.

He says the motivation for starting Nutrient Rescue, which sells fruit and vegetable powders for smoothies and health shots, was making a difference to people and the planet. "It was in response to me becoming aware of the health of New Zealanders and the health of the environment and actually wanting to do something to make a difference.

"As I've changed, my business focus has changed," Mayell says.

"My food journey has gone from wanting to make money in 1983 through to Nutrient Rescue with wanting to make a difference."

He also formed charitable movement Drinkable Rivers in August last year. "If we can get people talking about drinkable rivers instead of swimmable rivers, then we might bring them about," he says.

"If we [aim] for drinkable rivers then we'll definitely have swimmable rivers."

Cookies on display inside Cookie Time's 'Cookie Bar' in Queenstown. Photo / Facebook
Cookies on display inside Cookie Time's 'Cookie Bar' in Queenstown. Photo / Facebook

The father of three children and two stepchildren says he has gone from describing himself as a food entrepreneur, to a tech entrepreneur, to a social entrepreneur, to an impact entrepreneur.

"Now, I consider myself to be a re-generational entrepreneur."

A vegan, Mayell is all for a meat-free New Zealand.

"I decided I was going to try a month without eating meat and that was done purely for my own personal health reasons and after a couple of weeks I went 'this is easy, and I feel amazing, I'm going to run with this for a year'."

He then watch Cowspiracy on Netflix. It was the conformation he needed to make a plant-based diet work for good, he says.

This year, Mayell will go on a month-long "renunciation" trip to India, where he will give up his cellphone, money, the internet, alcohol and his wife.

"I'm going to start in New Delhi and going to have a return train ticket to where Buddha was enlightened. In my backpack I'm going to have no money, 50 grams of whole hemp seeds per day, Nutrient Rescue red shots and green shots - one each per day, and I might have a Cookie Time or One Square Meal bar for each of the 30 days," he says.

"I'm just going to be living in the moment and see what happens."

But he will carry a GPS tracker.

When Mayell isn't working, he can be found outside watching sunrises and sunsets, cycling, hiking and being at one with nature.

"I do not differentiate work from anything else," he says. "I work but I don't call it work. It's projects. And I don't work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, I create all the time."

Mayell has a list of 15 "things" that he makes an effort to have and do each day, including laughing, exercising and getting plenty of vitamin D. "One of the most important ones is purpose. When you've got a purpose you wake up in the morning and it's very easy to decide what you're going to do.

"My purpose is to help Kiwis become the most energised and healthy people on the planet, and to get drinkable rivers in our lifetime, and that's what I do - that's with all of these new initiatives and everything I'm doing now is all about that."

Michael Mayell

Job: Founder of Nutrient Rescue, One Square Meal, Cookie Time
Age: 57
Lives: Christchurch
Family: Married, three children and two stepchildren
Last book read: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan
Last film watched: The Matrix directed by the Wachowski Brothers
Last overseas holiday: Bali, Indonesia
Biggest problem facing his sector: Single-use plastic packaging