March 12, 2020

Most of us are making attempts to be more sustainable now—from carrying cloth bags to refusing plastic straws—it’s no longer a topic that’s relegated to the hipsters or green tech companies. Now, even when we go grocery shopping, there are many choices that we can make in order to minimise our carbon footprint. Thankfully, eco-conscious food retailers are making our decision-making easier with information on their food packaging. At times, it can get quite frazzling with labels like “organic”, “all-natural”, “GMO-free”, “grass-fed”, etc. Other times, it can be a whole lot of baloney. Are they even properly certified? Often, we end up getting bullied into making the wrong purchases by good marketing, resulting in misplaced trust.

If you’re on the verge of becoming a cynic, don’t cave in yet. For the past 7 years, Ryan’s Grocery has built its reputation by offering organic meat and groceries in a humble store in Binjai Park, to wholesaling these niche brands and supplies to larger companies. This year, founders Sebastian Chia and Wendy Foo have decided to spread their wings and open up a café in Great World City. We asked Wendy to share more about her sprawling 4,000 sq ft dining area and how they are doing their part to help consumers make healthier and sustainable choices.

High Net Worth: From what we have read, Ryan’s Grocery was born out of the desire to help your son, who is intolerant to a lot of foods.

Wendy Foo: Ryan is a special needs child, so aside from going for therapies, we also believe that food is like medicine and is equally important for his well-being. After conducting a few tests, we found out that he has a number of food intolerances, including gluten, dairy, soy and nuts, as well as cucumber, broccoli and watermelon. Moreover, a healthy gut is essential for one to absorb the necessary nutrients, so we always try to make sure that he “detoxes” by consuming ‘clean’ meat and bones. That means the produce must be additive, antibiotic, and hormone-free. Unfortunately, that was hard to come by in Singapore at the time, and the lack of options led to us to Australia in search of organic produce.

Was the prospect of starting a business something you had in mind or did it take shape along your journey in search of organic produce?

It was never been our intention to go into business. It only started when we needed a place to store and process the food we had brought in. The need became more pressing because we were travelling too frequently to fulfil Ryan’s dietary requirements, as well as requests from family and friends. Eventually, we got acquainted with the producers and that’s how Ryan’s Grocery began.

How did Alternative Selection come about then?

We launched Ryan’s Grocery, an organic butchery and gluten-free grocery, in August 2015. The retail store, located in Binjai Park, is a one-stop-shop for anyone looking for allergen- and preservative-free food, featuring a selection of organic, hormone and antibiotic-free meat sourced from farms in Australia. Our aim was to create an outlet to support the local community of adults and children with food intolerances and dietary challenges.

Following that, Alternative Selection, a wholesaler and retailer of alternative gourmet products, was launched in 2016 after we participated in Food Hotel Asia 2016 to test the market response and demand. We noticed the increase in demand for quality food and credible sources among Singaporeans, which meant growth for the company. During the Food & Hotel Asia show in 2016, we also received a surge in requests from hotel chains and restaurants to supply organic produce, which led us to set up a processing facility in Jurong. Alternative Selection currently supplies organic, free-range meat and gluten-free produce to companies such as Marina Bay Sands Singapore, Raffles Hotel, NTUC FairPrice and Redmart.

The demand for organic, allergen-free and preservative-free products continues to grow globally as consumers increasingly seek the best for themselves and for their families. Since then, we have expanded into Vietnam with our partner franchisees, and also opened a second outlet in Singapore, three times the size of our original shop in Binjai Park, along with our first café, Ryan’s Kitchen.

Was there a demand at the beginning already? And were consumers receptive to your products?

There has always been a demand for specialty foods in Singapore, but the demand was never sustainable enough to run a stable business. Since we started Ryan’s Grocery originally to fulfil a personal consumption and demand. Regardless of the market, we are still able to bring in more products, including carbon-neutral meats like Borrowdale Free Range Pork and Five Founders Natural Australian Beef. We are currently in our fifth year of operation and have since built a community of loyal customers and followers who are also interested in hormone and antibiotics-free meats.

Your products vary from organic beef to GMO-free certified non-dairy milk and more. Sourcing-wise, what drives the curation process? How do you decide who to carry?

Our curation process is very much centred on what our needs in the kitchen and pantry. For instance, due to Ryan’s dairy, nuts and soy intolerances, there are many dishes, cakes and baked goods that we are unable to make unless we have quality rice milk or cream. That’s why we started to import Orasi plant-based milk from Italy. They, by far, have the best rice milk. 90% of the products in Ryan’s Grocery are either organic, gluten-free, allergen-free or preservative-free. We are also looking into bringing in sustainable, carbon-neutral, non-GMO and fair-trade products, as well as products that are produced with animal welfare in mind. At the same time, we stick to the kind of products we will consume ourselves, while constantly looking for new products and producers to work with.

Congrats on Ryan’s Kitchen! Can you speak more about the menu and what makes it so special?

Ryan’s Kitchen marks our first foray into the dining scene in Singapore. The cosy Australian-style café seats 40 and the menu is prepared with quality produce as well as organic, gluten and preservation-free products that can be purchased at Ryan’s Grocery. In a nutshell, when customers dine at Ryan’s Kitchen, they can be assured that the ingredients used are of the same quality as the produce from Ryan’s Grocery. Some key menu highlights include an enticing selection of meats like Beef Rump, Striploin, Ribeye, Porterhouse and OP Ribs from Five Founders Carbon Neutral Certified Beef, Bultarra Aus Saltbush Lamb Cutlet and Borrowdale Free Range Pork Tomahawk and Collar. We also serve hearty burgers featuring inch-thick Five Founders beef patties between brioche buns with beetroot relish and mayonnaise. Our gluten-free fries from the US are made with 100% potatoes. 

Who would most likely be dining at your café?

Mindful, discerning and health-conscious diners, meat lovers and shoppers.

What’s your favourite dish on the menu?

Although I love our hearty burgers, I cannot have them for every meal, unlike my favourite Borrowdale Tomahawk that I eat quite regularly.

What are some of your top picks from the grocery?

We are proud to be the first store outside Australia to carry Roogenic’s range of loose tea jars. A family-owned all-natural health food supplier of premium Australian bush teas, spices, infused honey, the brand specialises in Australian Native Plants. One Singapore-exclusive brand I would like to highlight is Jamworks, and they have a wide selection of gourmet jam and chutney including a BBQ Relish with Glazed Fig and Onion as well as Red Hot Chilli Relish.

What are Ryan’s Kitchen’s plans for the future?

Ryan’s Kitchen is our first attempt at running a dining concept for consumers with dietary needs. Through this new concept, I personally hope that we are able to educate not only the kitchen staff on the intricacies of food allergies, but also the general public.

Speaking of Ryan, how is he doing now?

Thanks for asking! Ryan is turning 13 this year. Based on the food he eats, he has definitely benefited in terms of health and well-being. Now, he enjoys horse-riding, cycling, piano, painting classes and going for a good long walk.