Photo: The Straits Time/ Chew Seng Kim
When Ms Sasha Conlan relocated to Singapore with her husband and family from her native England in 2008, she found it difficult to get quality meat and seafood that was free of hormones, antibiotics and other added chemicals.
At the time, few retailers here were clearly labelling where their meats came from, or disclosing if hormones and antibiotics were used in production, or how the animals and fish were raised.
But this provided the impetus for the former corporate lawyer to start Barbie Girls, an online grocer that sources meats from animals reared naturally, in 2011.
With food safety as her mantra, the 46-year-old mother of three, the firm's founder, sells only products from suppliers she has personally met and vetted. These are mostly smaller, often family-run farms and fisheries in the English and Irish countryside, New Zealand's Alpine rivers and Australian cattle lands.
"I didn't want to buy meat that has growth hormones, which are used to make the animal grow more quickly so you can slaughter them at a younger age. That affects the quality of the meat because it hasn't been allowed to tenderise naturally. Added chemicals are never a good thing. There have been studies that show food injected with growth hormones can bring on the onset of puberty much earlier in young children," she said.
The name Barbie Girls came from one of her children.
"It was a silly name but we thought people will remember it," she said. "Barbie is short for barbecue, and I had started the business selling barbecue meats. But the meaning was lost on a lot of people. The Australians and British got it, but the French didn't."
A misunderstanding with the local authorities over the name also resulted in her application for an employment pass being rejected.
"They told me I was turned down because they weren't sure why I had to live in Singapore to sell Barbie dolls," she said. But her application was approved after the misunderstanding was cleared up. "Had I been selling Barbie dolls, I wouldn't have gotten my employment pass."
Renamed Sasha's Fine Foods in February this year, the e-grocer offers free-range fresh chickens from British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's supplier in Malaysia - which also supplies his restaurants in Singapore; fresh and smoked salmon from Mount Cook, home-made bone broths, wild New Zealand cod, free-range English bacon, creamy Burrata cheese and a range of additive-free, ready-to-go meals.
ATTRACTING MORE LOCALS
The business grew slowly at first until 2014 when it received funding from a wealthy Singapore private investor. Ms Conlan also tapped various government schemes.
The funds were used to grow the business' storage capabilities and delivery logistics, build a better website, upgrade its online platform and automate more processes. The firm added three more employees.
Sasha's hopes to grab a bigger slice of the fast-growing online sales pie. But groceries account for just 2 to 3 per cent of online sales in Singapore, compared with 14 per cent in London, Ms Conlan said.
While she acknowledged that it is tough to penetrate the local market, she hopes to grow that segment. "We want to sell more to the younger, wealthier and working professionals who have travelled or studied overseas and have had home deliveries in the countries they lived in," she said.
The firm sells its products online and is also looking at developing its wholesale business locally and in the region.
Like most Britons, Ms Conlan has mixed feelings about Brexit and its implications. For one thing, Britain's exit from the European Union could have implications for how and where she sources her seafood supplies in Ireland - both the Republic, which is part of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
"Border issues are coming up. I have suppliers in Northern Ireland. When Brexit happens, they will have to make a decision on where they can fish from. This could get more complicated," she said.
Britain's withdrawal from the EU's fishing rules would mean that it could regain authority over British territorial waters. But the Republic of Ireland's fishermen catch about 40 per cent of their quota in British waters. Post-Brexit, not only would the Republic lose such an important place to fish, it would also be faced with greater competition in its own waters from EU vessels.
But currency volatility over the past year, particularly as the pound weakened against the Singdollar, has been a boon. "We import directly from some farms in England. I was looking at some new venison, pheasant, grouse and rabbit farms in the UK and northern Ireland; and dry aged beef and lamb, and sustainable fisheries in Scotland. Due to the weaker pound, it makes sense for us to buy more from England than Australia."
This story was originally published on The Straits Times, April 17, 2017.