Health food to go

A few years ago, finding food that's good for your body would require driving out to a secluded spa or wellness centre in some leafy part of Singapore, nibbling through a tiny bowl of salad, and then receiving a disproportionately large bill for it.

Not anymore. In the past few months, health food eateries specialising in everything from organic produce to raw diets and gluten-free menus have started making in-roads into more visible shopping mall locations. A clutch are also spinning off fast-food concepts to reach out to a wider audience.

Ashikin Raja of Frootkeyk, a baking collective that churns out healthy cakes using organic ingredients such as raw food, rice milk and superfoods like chia seeds and spirulina, has noticed a significant turn in their 11 months of operations.

"More parents are asking to customise their children's birthday cakes to include healthier or organic food, and we get requests for gluten-free bakes from people who don't suffer from coeliac disease," she adds.

Instead of riding on the current food fad, young entrepreneurs Agnetta Lew, 23, and fiance Gabriel Lee, 24, decided to eschew opening yet another cupcake shop for a more challenging alternative: in July, they opened Singapore's first entirely gluten-free bakery, Jonathan's, to cater to what they feel is a gap in the market.

Ms Lew, whose younger brother Jonathan has Down's Syndrome and is on a gluten-free diet, says she started the cafe to offer special needs children and those with severe allergies a place where "like other kids, they too can order anything and everything on the menu".

Unless personally afflicted with a food allergy, says Ms Lew, most chefs don't realise the severity of such health conditions, and the need to strictly control cross-contamination, says Ms Lew, hence her decision to go fully gluten-free, despite the very niche target market. "The upside of having a customer base with specific needs also means that you tend to get more loyal customers, and better word-of-mouth marketing within that community," adds her business partner, Mr Lee.

Similarly, consultant chef Tim Ross-Watson, who is gluten-intolerant, worked in a 55 per cent gluten-free menu at Gusto when the Italian restaurant at Ion Orchard approached him to reboot their menu. His business partner, Audrey Yeong, who runs food consultancy, Apple Order, and is on a voluntary Paleo diet - an eating regime that eliminates all processed forms of sugar on certain days of the week - attributes the growing demand for allergen-free dining to the proliferation of fitness and fad diets.

Allergy sufferers, for instance, may not realise they have existing allergies until they go on a fitness regime that requires the elimination of specific food groups, and then notice a significant improvement in their health. They may then decide to get tested, and identify pre-existing allergies. "And when they start to see results through eating better, they won't want to go back to their regular eating habits," she says.

"People are awakening to the fact that pharmaceutical drugs are just suppressing the symptoms rather than treating the problem - and they usually come with side effects," observes Ashley Heather of the Living Cafe and Deli in Bukit Timah. Rather than try to suppress the growing appetite for fast food given in an increasingly time-starved society, businesses such as his have decided to adjust their concepts to keep up with the shift towards convenience food.

Last month, the cafe rebranded itself as the Living Cafe and Deli to better spotlight its retail section and expanded menu of grab-and-go items such as healthy sandwiches, salads, wraps and dehydrated crackers. "It used to be a given that fast food was unhealthy, processed food, but these days, people want fast food that is also healthy. We are evolving with the dynamic," Mr Heather adds, citing the global boom in raw food express outlets.

Vegan burger joint, Greenzilla, likewise, expanded from a stall in a Jurong East coffeeshop to a four-seat, largely takeaway kiosk in The Star Vista mall in September, while SuperNature recently relocated from its Park House to a more visible space in Forum the Shopping Mall to boost its walk-in traffic. It set aside a prominent corner in the store for a new takeaway concept, the SuperNature To-Go Cafe.

The ready meals help to dispel the common perception among sceptics that healthier food is less tasty and offers poorer value for money, according to its spokesman. "Ready-made food allows customers to taste the organic produce available in our store, and we believe that tasting is believing. When customers sample our food, they can truly taste the freshness and difference that organic produce offers." If the takeaway counter is well-received, the corner may eventually be expanded into a full-fledged, sit-down cafe.

To keep prices down, the store's buyers also source free-range and natural products from countries around the region such as Taiwan and Thailand, rather than limit themselves to products from Europe and the United States, which tend to have higher import costs.

But business owners such as Frootkeyk's Ms Raja also believe critical change comes about not just from boosting the number of speciality health food restaurants in Singapore, but in getting more regular food outlets to offer healthier alternatives too.

"As it is, we see bubble tea shops allowing for sugar level choice and hawker stalls promoting healthier options," she adds.

Still, there's a stickier challenge that plagues not just health food eateries, but every F&B business in Singapore: the issue of simply surviving in an increasingly competitive environment. According to the latest statistics, a total of 537 restaurants closed in Singapore last year.

Citing high rents and tightened foreign labour laws, Living Cafe and Deli's Mr Heather rules out further expansion in Singapore, citing instead opportunities in neighbouring cities such as Jakarta, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur instead.

"Running an F&B outlet in Singapore is just too hard," he says.

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