The Edge: Gluten-free and gourmet
Sebastian and Wendy Chia set up Ryan’s Grocery to import gluten-free, organic and farm-fresh produce for their son who has multiple food intolerances and to tap a growing appetite to eat better.
Sebastian and Wendy Chia never used to bother about gluten. They hardly even ate beef, let alone organic beef. However, all that changed for the Singaporean couple when they discovered that their son Ryan was intolerant to a wide range of foods. This included gluten, dairy, nuts, soy, eggs and yeast. That was in 2011 and Ryan was about four.
“We were advised to first drop dairy from his diet,” Wendy recalls. “In just a month, we saw a big difference, in terms of behaviour and sleeping patterns.” Next, they cut back on gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. After six months, they saw more improvement in Ryan. Following that, they moved to reduce his intake of foods with yeast, soy, nuts and eggs.
That threw up a whole new dilemma for the family. What could he eat? And where could they get food to meet his special dietary requirements? Shopping for food that caters to a range of sensitivities is a challenge in Singapore. Going organic or gluten-free can also be hard on the wallet. The Chias embarked on a hunt for alternative foods. That saw them navigating a nutritional obstacle course in which they had to scrutinise labels and learn to whip up meals with new superfoods such as quinoa and chia seeds. They also began eating more organic red meat, as it was a source of calcium for Ryan after dairy was phased out of his diet.
For her grocery needs, Wendy found herself running from premium meat retailers such as Huber’s Butchery to organic speciality stores like SuperNature. She also shopped online at sites such as iHerb.com, a US e-tailer of affordable natural products, which ships to Singapore, typically within a week.
At the same time, the Chias began making trips to Australia, where they visited farmers’ markets and farms. During a visit to the Farmers’ Market on Manning in Perth, they tasted some cuts of Blackwood Valley Beef. It was organic, it was grass-fed, and in the words of Wendy, “it was so flavourful”. Grass-fed beef is generally thought to taste more gamey than grain-fed beef, which comes from cattle fed with corn or soy.
After that, every time they went to Perth, the Chias would lug back 20kg of frozen, vacuum-packed beef and lamb. The owner of the farm that produces Blackwood Valley Beef, Warren Pensini, heard about the couple and invited them to the farm, located some three hours south of Perth, for a visit. “We became friends,” says Wendy.
They have also become business partners. In July, the Chias opened Ryan’s Grocery in the Bukit Timah enclave of Binjai Park. With a stock of more than 1,000 products, 99% of which are gluten- free, it bills itself as a store specialising in gluten-free products. It also sells organic and free-range meats and small batch farm-fresh produce sourced directly from Western Australia. In October, Ryan’s Grocery began exclusively selling Blackwood Valley Beef in Singapore. Singapore is also the first market outside of Australia where Blackwood Valley Beef can be found.
“We faced many challenges when feeding our son and I couldn’t find everything under one roof,” Wendy says. At the same time, the Chias realised that the number of people who were concerned about food allergies was growing, as were worries about growth hormones, antibiotics, preservatives and additives (see sidebar for more). “People are trying to eat better,” notes Wendy.
They were already making four to five sourcing trips a year to Western Australia and had become friendly with the artisanal producers they frequented. It didn’t seem too big a stretch to start importing products to tap the demand for more wholesome food.
Steep learning curve
The Chias started out online. In May this year, the Gluten Free Store (www.gluten freestore.sg) was launched. So far, the site has attracted consumers who have to shun gluten, namely those with celiac disease, a disorder where the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten. The plan is to roll out a permanent site this month, which will be able to filter products according to specific dietary needs, after which the online store will be marketed more aggressively, says Wendy.
Setting up the brick-and-mortar store took a lot more effort. The husband-and wife team faced a steep learning curve as neither had any experience working in the food and beverage industry. For much of his career, Sebastian had been in electronics retailing. He spent eight years at Samsung Asia, where he climbed to the position of head of sales. Following that, he took on the role of chief operating officer at The Safe Superstore, which was formerly SAF Enterprises, a white goods retailer set up in the 1970s to cater for army staff.
Wendy, meanwhile, had been working in the fields of media sales, marketing and advertising. Almost half of her 25- year career was spent in Hong Kong and China. This included management roles at NetEase Inc, China’s largest email service provider, and Qunar.com, the country’s most popular travel site. Both 48, the couple have known each other since their late teens but only got together after reconnecting at a friend’s wedding in 2002. They married in 2005.
“We had the usual challenges of a startup,” Wendy says. One such difficulty was finding the right people to handle the day to- day operations of the business. “We had people turning up for interviews, who didn’t even know what gluten-free meant,” she notes. They also realised that there weren’t many qualified butchers in Singapore. Ryan’s Grocery buys its beef by the carcass and not from abattoirs, where the meat is already cut up, so its butchers were sent to Australia for training. It also took the Chias a year to get the right machinery in, which included top-of-the line chillers from Spain.
The Chias were fortunate to get help from Wendy’s brother, Willie Foo, who had been a consultant to several companies in the F&B business. Foo also co-owns three restaurants, giving him insight into what customers and restaurant owners look for. He is a co-investor at Ryan’s Grocery and helps with negotiations for product and outlet licences, and the company’s business structuring and development.
On the regulatory side, they had to satisfy the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority’s multiple rules on imported food, such as labelling and sampling. Handcrafted dairy free and sugar-free nut butter from small producer Health Nut Foods, for example, had to be sampled before it could be sold.
Grass-fed versus grain-fed
Getting Blackwood Valley Beef on board was another hurdle. To start exporting, Pensini had to get licensed by the Western Australian authorities, a process that took more than a year. Pensini’s family has been raising cattle in Western Australia since 1920 and the Blackwood Valley brand was selling well domestically. He hadn’t thought about exports.
However, he was struck by the Chias’ passion for what they were doing and felt that it would be a “fantastic fit”. All his cattle are handpicked, exclusively grass-fed and raised in a farm that is certified organic. Artificial growth hormones and antibiotics are not used. The cattle are allowed to live longer than commercially raised animals, allowing more time for natural flavours to develop, says Pensini, who was in Singapore to showcase his Blackwood Valley Beef. He also points out that grass-fed beef, compared with grain-fed, has higher levels of good Omega 3 fatty acids and lower levels of not-so-beneficial Omega 6.
Aside from this, Ryan’s Grocery also sells free-range pork from Linley Valley in Western Australia and free-range, hormone and antibiotic-free chicken from Malaysia. Other offerings include gluten-free sausages made on-site as well as sausages free of sulphates, nitrates and preservatives, which are deemed carcinogenic.
For all that, there is a growing cluster of premium butchers and retailers of health-conscious, gourmet food in Singapore. How does Ryan’s Grocery plan to stand apart? Price is one avenue. Their prices are competitive as “we deal directly with the farms or producers, so we eliminate one layer of distributor costs”, says Sebastian.
Another distinction is that several of the brands on its shelves are boutique names new to the food scene here. Some, like Colmena Pure Honey, are exporting their products for the first time. A family business, Colmena produces raw honey without boiling the honey to make it more liquid. It also does not use chemicals or filters and separates the honey from the bees wax through gravity.
Its signature honey is Jarrah, prized for its antibacterial properties and high antioxidant levels. Dark and tasting of caramel, the honey is made from bees that collect nectar from the flowering Jarrah tree in the Dwelling up forest. Jarrah is the aboriginal name for the tree, a species of Eucalyptus.
Also making its Singapore debut is a range from Great Southern Truffles. The company produces truffle oil, truffle honey, black truffle mustard, truffle butter and truffle salsa. Truffles are indigenous to Europe, but since 1999, the gourmet mushrooms with an intense and earthy fragrance have been commercially farmed in Australia.
“You have to try the mushroom and eggplant truffle salsa,” says Wendy. She then gestures to a plate filled with thin slices of tenderloin fillet garnished with pickled grapes and herbs. “And also the beef carpaccio,” she adds. These gourmet treats are serendipitous finds in the Chias’ journey to source nutritious and all-natural food for their son, a labour of love that has evolved into a family business.
Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, wishes she had more discipline when it comes to food. Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, wishes she had more discipline when it comes to food.
ALLERGY ,INTOLERANCE OR SENSITIVITY
A food allergy triggers an immune system reaction, which in severe cases can be life-threatening if anaphylaxis occurs. In comparison, food intolerance is less serious, even though it shares many of the same symptoms with a food allergy such as hives. A food intolerance typically relates to digestive problems, such as the absence of an enzyme needed to properly digest a food. On top of that, there is food sensitivity. For example, the sulphites used to preserve dried or canned food or wine can spur asthma attacks in sensitive people.
In recent years, gluten has gained a bad reputation because of a rise in the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease. Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye, and gives dough its elastic texture. For people with celiac disease, eating gluten damages the lining of their small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients. There is not much they can do except to avoid the stuff. However, gluten is found extensively in today’s processed food chain – not just in baked goods and pasta but also in things like beer, bottled sauces and salad dressings.
Increasingly too, people are cutting back on gluten even if they don’t have celiac disease simply because they find that they don’t digest it well. At the same time, many consumers are now more discerning about their diets, preferring food made without preservatives, artificial flavouring or colouring, and food that is organic.
This article appeared in the Options of Issue 706 (Dec 2) of The Edge Singapore.