Parents World: Gluten Free Hero

A mother’s quest to provide for her son led Wendy Foo to launch Singapore’s first organic grocery.

Healthy eating took on an entirely different meaning for Wendy Foo the day she found out that her 3-year-old son Ryan was intolerant to dairy, gluten, nuts, soy, eggs and yeast. What followed was a mad scramble trying to find suitable replacements that Ryan could eat. When they couldn’t find the right solution at home, the search for organic meat and gluten free produce took Wendy and her husband. Sebastian, all the way to Australia. After numerous trips back and forth scouring for the holy grail, it dawned on Wendy that if you wanted good gluten free food, you might just have to open your own grocery store.

Wendy said goodbye to her 25 year career in media sales, marketing and advertising and in 2015, launched Ryan’s Grocery as the first organic grocery and butchery in Singapore. What started out as the solution to one mother’s problems quickly become the missing piece of the puzzle for other individuals and families who has special dietary requirements. Today, Ryan’s Grocery is the city’s one stop for anyone looking for organic, allergen free, preservative free food and free range organic, hormone free, and antibiotics free meats.

In 2016, the company also launched Alternative Selection, a wholesaler and retailer of alternative gourmet products. It currently supplied shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels throughout Singapore and helps to develop and design gluten free menus in hope of helping more people like Ryan find dietary solutions.

What was your first reaction when you found out Ryan had developed his allergies?

Like any mother, I panicked when I first found out about Ryan’s allergies and intolerances. However, I managed to look on the bright side of things and sought for solutions. As Ryan had sleeping and behavioural issues when he reached 3 years of age, we sought and tried all professional methods, but they did not work. We were fortunately introduced to a Child Behavioural Specialist, Dana Kae from the United States. After a 3 hour session, she told us to stop dairy products. She also told us of we see an improvement in Ryan’s condition, we should consider gluten and other allergens. Within a week, we saw an improvement in his sleep pattern and that led us to seek professional help from Dr Erwin Kay. We did a series of tests and found he has intolerances to many kinds of food.

How did you first try to remedy the situation when you learnt of Ryan’s allergies?

At first, I tried to replace what he was used to eating. I started religiously reading food ingredient lists and learnt to cook and pack home cooked food whenever we dined out or when we went to parties. Priori to Ryan’s condition. I loved to cook and shop leisurely at various supermarkets, grocers and butcheries. After finding out about the various foods Ryan was not able to take, shopping for food was no longer a pleasure as many places were not able to provide us with foods that are free of gluten, dairy, eggs, yeast, soy, nuts and preservatives. I had to be very careful about what I purchased for Ryan. Thus, to cater to Ryan’s needs, I started making my own mushroom sauce, pork floss, bak kwa, char siew bun, ice cream and muffins. As it was difficult to get the ingredients we needed in Singapore, we decided to travel to United States and Australia to seek various new products and eventually, I learnt that we needed to change his diet instead of just replacing what he was used to eating.

Describe one unexpected difficulty you experienced.

The availability and choices of gluten free and organic produce are limited in Singapore. The supply of the available options was not consistent too. Also when I enquired about gluten free sausages and ham at my regular butchery, they though I was trying to be ‘trendy’ or trying to follow a fad diet, and after which they did not seem as welcoming as before.

How did you teach Ryan to recognise what he couldn’t eat and voice out his allergies to others?

We had to teach him about his intolerances and what he can and cannot eat. He is taught to not take outside food unnecessarily, as even French fries do contain gluten or soy. Ryan has been on this special diet for more than 7 years now and his dietary preferences have also changed. He no longer wants ice cream as he finds it too cold or sweet, and he is good with plain water. He will also ask for permission to try new food. Due to his diet, he has a relatively heavy home cooked breakfast to start the day and his snacks are usually fresh, dried or freeze-dried fruits, bars, beans and occasionally chips. He doesn’t have much of a craving for other food in between meals.

What is the key to juggling work and family?

The key is to focus on a place, get organized and find the right balance between profession and parenthood. It is important to sort out your priorities and learn to delegate. For example, you can create and organize a family calendar that can include special dates, a chore chart for the kids, a list of school and family events, extracurricular activities, birthdays, etc. you can also create special family activities to nurture togetherness and allow everyone to bond.

Which is more challenging: business or motherhood? Why?

Business! Being a mum, we expect nothing in return and there is so much joy when hanging out with our kids. They teach us to be humble, fun, and adventurous, bringing out the kid in us. The only stressful time is when they are sick. Luckily, healthy eating has led to good health and my kids are rarely ill.

Being a business owner, we are responsible for employees and their families, customers, suppliers, business associates and we also have a public responsibility. We have to manage and strike a balance with all parties and meet their expectations.

What does Ryan’s Grocery represent to you?

Ryan’s Grocery represents our love and commitment to be able to provide for our son. We also wanted to fill in a gap in the market. Seven years ago, it wasn’t that easy to gain access to allergen free food. We were totally clueless when we first found out that Ryan has multiple intolerances. Now, Ryan’s Grocery seeks to serve this community of people who are going through the same situation, offering safe food alternatives. Essentially, we want to let our customers know that they are not alone. We are now one of the first stops for many people who have just found out about their allergies, and we are most happy to be able to assist and embark on this journey with them. As they become more confident, they are able to shop elsewhere for their needs. We have customers that walk in with tears in their eyes- they are so glad that they have fond us, knowing that they are not alone. Some customers also have my phone number and we encourage each other, exchange tips on food, and talk about schools, social events, help groups, etc.

What are some of your favourite products for children you have stocked?

For means, Ryan’s Grocery is the only one stop shop for all sorts of good quality meats, sausages, and hams. We also carry other healthy options (our current favourites) like quinoa from Australia and seaweed from France. In addition, we also have gluten free cookies, a variety of healthy chips, amino acids, baking and tempura premixes, dairy free chocolate, organic and gluten free pasta.

When you decide to dine out as a family, which eateries do you frequent?

Due to Ryan’s special dietary requirements, we have limited places to dine if we do not bring Ryan’s food along. Over the years, we have tried many places and have selected a few where we can dine with confidence. One of them is Summer Palace in Regent Hotel. They have gluten-free menu and the staff are very well versed on menu items and out needs. We love that they are happy to tweak their main menu items to accommodate our requirements too. In addition, the kids get to run and play along the broad walkways outside the restaurant. Other venues include both Shangri-La Orchard and Shangri-La Sentosa. They are able to whip up a meal upon your request.