Just two years ago, Kiwi mums Clare Gallagher and Lauren Taylor barely knew each other, but they had a lot in common – both keen home bakers, the pair were also on the brink of financial disaster and feeling overwhelmed.
The Auckland pair had met through their daughters, Poppy and Lauren, who were friends from school, and after the pandemic struck, the mothers found themselves turning to each other for support.
Clare's family had recently moved to Devonport from Waiheke Island, where she was known as "the village baker", making delectable delights for the locals whenever she wasn't busy managing her household of four kids. When a Covid-mandated hire freeze prevented her husband Adrian, 42, from getting a job, she knew she had to take action.
"He was set to take up a position at another company, but his current employer offered him a new role to stay on," explains Clare, 43. "I remember asking if he'd signed the contract yet and he said, 'No, I'll get to it later.' About a day after, Covid hit and they immediately froze all hires."
Adrian wasn't worried, but as the weeks went by, he realised he was in trouble. With five dependants at home, including Clare, reality began to set in.
Meanwhile, Lauren was a marketing contractor, supporting people in hospitality, restaurants and hotels, and her work dried up around the same time as Adrian's did. Having learned Lauren was both a whizz in the kitchen and a marketing genius, Clare approached her with the idea of a sauce business to save them from financial ruin.
"If she asked me to breed camels, I would have said yes," laughs Lauren. "I'm a big believer in opening any door that's offered to you as it will inevitably lead to other doors. It's very scary when you've lost your job, your direction or your career – it's a very uncomfortable situation to face.
"A lot of people have been going through it in the past two years and we all have different ways of embracing the discomfort, but any time there's destruction in your life, it can lead to opportunity, so my philosophy is to just say yes!"
And so a business was born. Secret Kiwi Kitchen began in secret in a Kiwi kitchen, hence the name. Once Aotearoa powered through that first lockdown, Clare and Lauren got to work creating dessert sauces, which led to brownies, then baking mixes – each recipe focused on flavour and ease.
They spent months testing mixes, sourcing the highest-quality ingredients they could get their hands on. The test team included Clare's four kids, Poppy, 15, Finley, 14, Rhoan, 11, and Imogen, 7, as well as Lauren's daughters, Olivia, 18, and Lila, 15.
However, while New Zealand's lockdown was over, Covid wasn't done with the families. Clare's English-based mum and stepdad, who usually visit Auckland three times a year, contracted the virus early on and she struggled with the stress of her parents' health.
"Whenever Mum would visit, she'd get some kind of bronchial disorder," shares Clare. "There's been pleurisy and pneumonia, so I've always been worried about her health. And then she picked up Covid.
"She didn't tell me at first because she didn't want me to worry. But I couldn't get hold of her for a few days and then she said, 'I think I've got this thing that they're talking about.' And sure enough, she did! She recovered and was fine, but then my stepfather had it too and they've had it again since."
Meanwhile, Lauren, who grew up in New York, was used to returning to the US to visit every year, but border closures meant she missed weddings, funerals and births.
"It seems so long since I've seen everyone and it's so hard being away," she tells. "I've been homesick and that's a tricky thing when you're in between work. It's probably part of the reason we dived into Secret Kiwi Kitchen so hard."
Lauren's family had a stand at a farmers' market in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, for 40 years. The woman who raised her was Vietnamese and the stall started out selling what were then very exotic Vietnamese rolls. When she was a child, Lauren suggested they sell brownies as well.
"People weren't familiar with Vietnamese food back then and the stand wasn't busy," recalls Lauren. "So I came up with this brownie recipe to attract the kids, thinking the kids will bring the grown-ups and it worked!
"She had the most popular stand at the market after that," she tells. "Since she passed away, brownies always make me think of her – it's like this gift from the other side. It's so funny that my second chance and this new lease on life have come through brownies."
While Lauren and Clare struggled to sell their sauces at local markets, as soon as they began giving out samples of brownies alongside the condiments, they started attracting more customers, who were desperate for the secret recipe.
When a second lockdown hit, there was a renewed interest in baking and the pair's convenient baking mixes – containing all the dry ingredients needed for delicious brownies – became an online winner.
"What's really nice about our mixes is they give people a moment of connection and it's an activity as well," says Lauren. "It's great to get kids cooking and it gives you flexibility. But even after this last lockdown, we've been busy – it's a way to have fresh baking that's easy and you know it will be delicious."
So what sets Secret Kiwi Kitchen apart from the other baking mixes? While they
are insanely convenient – the pancake mix only requires water – their customers all agree it's the taste.
"When we went into it, we both said, 'If we're going to do baking mixes, they have to taste amazing,' " says Clare.
"My house is known by the local kids as The Brownie House, so I've always been a bit precious about my reputation and so has Lauren. We agreed from the outset that it needs to taste like next-level baking. We certainly put on a few kilos in our attempts to get everything right!"
And they're clearly doing something right. Recently, they partnered with HelloFresh to bring their Buttermilk Pancake & Waffle Mix to the meal-kit company's customers, with their product now being sent out to thousands of homes every week.
Secret Kiwi Kitchen is also now the first baking mix to be stocked on shelves at Briscoes – and there are plenty of other business deals that have catapulted the brand into the foodie limelight.
"We're branching out into different products now," says Lauren. "Edible botanicals are our new thing. We've just signed a collab with Bombay Sapphire, creating cocktail kits that will be perfect for summer."
Now a finalist for the Product of the Year trophy at the NZ Food Awards, and in talks with two major distributors in Australia and Singapore, the ladies will surely have their
work cut out for them in the coming year, but neither would have it any other way.
"What matters most is that our customers are happy and they like everything we do,"
says Clare. "And that we like doing it!"