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Interview with Michael Leen, the man behind Paleonnaise!

Updated: Aug 14, 2018

It was a rainy, grey, overcast day when we trekked up into an industrial estate in deepest Bassendean to Fresh Frontier in Perth to meet Mike Leen , his wife, Donna and their two lovely children, Maddy and Jack.

We are not usually fans of any ‘processed’ food and would normally advocate people making their own stuff from scratch. However we came across a product called ‘Paleonnaise’ some time ago and had a cynical look at the label only to discover all the ingredients fitted in with our lifestyle.

And then we tried it and the rest is history. We loved the stuff and introduced it to friends who also became addicted.

It just struck a chord that someone had developed a product that meant we can still follow Paleo principles but get a little bit of help from the modern world.

We were intrigued and wanted to meet the man behind it all.

So we, with Callum (photography) ventured up to Bassendean where Paleonnaise was born.

As soon as we met Mike the grey day melted away and we were struck by his enthusiasm and zest for life and his smile lit up the room and was infectious.

And Mike was kind enough to tell us his story. We hope you like it…

So, Michael, tell us a bit about yourself…where did you grow up?

I grew up in Ireland, County Kerry. After a couple of years in university my father asked me to join him in his newly formed company, producing fresh salads for sale in the local supermarkets. After a couple of years we were supplying some of the largest supermarkets in Ireland including Tescos. At that time our main focus was to produce and supply a more “homemade”, and fresh style of salads with a shorter shelf life using no preservatives or additives.

So how long have you been in this country we both now call home?

I have been in Australia for fourteen years now. After the untimely passing of my father I was a little lost back home and decided to try something completely different and ended up in this beautiful country I now call home. I met my now wife Donna shortly after arriving in Australia and we will be celebrating our 11th wedding anniversary this week, we have Maddy 10, and Jack 9 and no more on the horizon.

Who have been major influences in your life and shaped the pathway you chose?

In the past, it would have to be my late father. He was a very astute business man with a good feel for what the market wanted, he had a very strong work ethic, he was also very down to earth so there was very little point in trying to bluff him as he would very colourfully tell me what to do.

In more recent years I would have to admit (and I hope she does not read this) that my wife has been a very positive influence in my life in too many ways to mention here, suffice to say, I could not do what I’m doing now without her unwavering help and support. And finally, I have to mention my current business partners, John Opferkuch and Gilbert Corriea who have backed me all the way with this latest venture, their vast knowledge in both the fruit and vegetable business and business in general is a huge help on a daily basis.

There’s definitely a large movement of people regaining their health and kicking back against mainstream processed food. How do you see this progressing in the future?

It is becoming very evident that people are literally, so sick of the junk food they have almost been forced to eat for generations now. There is a definite backlash occurring against the over processed, sugar laden and high carbohydrate diet of recent years. The “trend” towards healthy foods is definitely here to stay. In my own business, I can see it happen with every new product that we release, people want a healthy alternative, people are also becoming very educated in what effect their diet has on their overall health and well-being, let’s face it, you are what you eat.

What made you get involved in salads and supplying fresh food?

I simply love food and the challenge of developing healthy and tasty products for people to eat. My family have always been involved in the food industry. My father started his salad food business when I was fourteen, so I have been involved in the salad and fresh food industry for over thirty years now (scary). Our company in its current format “Fresh Frontier “was established St Patricks day 2014 with our first day of trading October 2014.

So what made you think of providing a healthy alternative to the mayonnaise products that were already available?

I honestly have always loved mayonnaise. I can remember as a child sneaking into the kitchen fridge and spooning down the stuff. As I got older I realised that mayonnaise had a lot of not so healthy ingredients, however it still did not stop me as I just loved it. The change came after visiting an iridologist who recommended I cut sugar, dairy and wheat from my diet. A close friend gave my wife a Paleo recipe for a mint chocolate slice to accommodate my sweet tooth , this was the first time I looked at what the paleo diet and lifestyle was all about and I really liked what I found. Sweet tooth satisfied, I really missed mayonnaise from my daily diet and, unable to find a sugar free version, I set about to produce a healthy great tasting mayonnaise at home .

And how does that process start? Do you just experiment with the recipe until you are happy on a small scale?

Yes, initially it is simply trial and error, making sure it tastes good and the texture holds up. Then the products need to be shelf life tested, this is a slow process as it literally takes months to validate. We also need to make sure we have the equipment to produce larger volumes and mayonnaise can be very tricky with the emulsification process involved.

How difficult is it to ensure all the ingredients actually fit the ‘Paleo’ protocol?

It was not too bad, however it has taught me to really read the ingredient labels on the foods we buy, they manage to put sugar into almost everything. Some of the main stream curry powders, mustard powders and chipotle did not conform to strict Paleo guidelines. It took a little more effort be we did source the required Paleo friendly ingredients.

We see your product is only to be found in the fridge. Most dressings are available on the shelf in supermarkets and only require refrigeration after they’re opened. What’s the go there?

Because we do not use any of the “nasties” (gums, thickeners, preservatives etc.) when producing Paleonnaise, we rely on the natural preserving ingredients of olive oil, vinegar and lemon juice. These factors mean we need to keep Paleonnaise refrigerated to ensure it maintains its texture, taste and shelf life.

This is completely off the wall, but as a lot of people know we are fanatical Freo Dockers members at Paleonutter. So, West Coast or Freo?

I am a die hard, unashamed 10 year Docker member. I will be in Subiaco with my son Jack for the first game of this season. Freo Forever…….

At the moment your Paleo lines are only available in WA? What next?

We are currently talking to 2 different companies to distribute the products nationally and will hopefully have some positive news in the next couple of weeks.

How can potential customers who want to buy these products in other States help you get better national distribution?

The big retailers respond to demand. The best approach is to email the big retailers as well as your local health food stockists, By cc’ing me I can collate and use in my dealings with retailers.

What other products do you sell under the ‘Paleo’ banner and have you got plans for any more?

Along with the range of Paleonnaise sauces we have also introduced a Paleo Roast Sweet Potato salad and a Paleo Kaleslaw salad. The demand for these new salads has been amazing and the support and encouragement from groups such as Paleo in Perth has been tremendous and humbling. I am back in the kitchen planning 2 new Paleo salads, a zucchini pasta might be on the cards along with a salad containing a fermented base for gut health... we will see. I have a much broader vision for Paleo friendly products to help people in the modern, time poor world we live in to have the opportunity to eat healthy all the time without compromising natural, healthy and fresh foods.

What is your dream for your product range?

I guess it would be for everyone who wants to eat healthy to do it a little bit easier, especially in the beginning stages which can be overwhelming and misleading at times. It really is possible to enjoy tasty products that have good, healthy ingredients without any “nasties” included. It would be great to reach and help people the average person who genuinely wants to eat the right foods but may be a little time poor and simply put it into the “too hard basket”. We (in the food industry) have to make it easier for people to make the right food decisions.

We understand you’ve recently become a follower of the Paleo lifestyle too, together with your wife Donna and your two children. How’s that all going?

Let’s just say I will be putting up the before and after photographs a lot sooner than I thought. It has been amazing, I know it’s not all about weight loss, but it sure is a great incentive watching the weight fall away to lose those extra kilos. I have personally lost 11 kg in 5 weeks and am feeling great. I have deviated on a couple of occasions (usually beer) but overall my diet has changed for the better, with a lot of help from my wife making some amazing Paleo meals, it has been easy and enjoyable. The kids are also eating much healthier with a noticeable lack of sugar and processed products in their diet, surprisingly they have embraced the meals and haven’t complained ...... Yet . My energy levels are way higher and definitely do not miss the horrible feeling from eating a load of chocolate and chips (plus the guilt)..

So where can we buy your range at the moment? 

Our main stockists are listed below, but if people would like to go over to our Fresh Frontier Facebook page, the ever changing and up to date list can be found.  

Also in an Aioli & Chipotle

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