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Going natural

Sunita Sue Leng
Sunita Sue Leng • 11 min read
Going natural
Cynthia Chua’s Spa Esprit Group has captured the market for personal grooming, speciality coffee and farm to table dining. Now, with her brand of cheeky humour, Singapore’s lifestyle queen wants to convert drinkers to natural wines
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Cynthia Chua’s Spa Esprit Group has captured the market for personal grooming, speciality coffee and farm to table dining. Now, with her brand of cheeky humour, Singapore’s lifestyle queen wants to convert drinkers to natural wines

SINGAPORE (July 29): Cynthia Chua is not a big drinker of wines, she confesses. “I don’t drink everyday, but I do enjoy a glass with my meals,” she says. However, not just any tipple will do. Least of all concoctions with a string of man-made additives such as sulphites, widely used to preserve alcoholic beverages. “Sulphites give me headaches and bloating,” she says.

Whenever possible, Chua opts for natural wine. Made without chemical intervention and the bare minimum of technological manipulation, this back-to-basics approach is favoured by small-batch, eco-conscious producers who tout their products as one of the cleanest forms of wine and who wear their wines’ authenticity and idiosyncrasies proudly. “It’s so easy to drink,” says Chua. “I feel like I’m drinking life.”

Chua, the driving force behind lifestyle and F&B company Spa Esprit Group, believes the time is right to spur a natural wine movement in Singapore. Because of -unease at the pollution and toxins in our water and soil, she believes people are getting picky about what they put into their bodies. Tastes are also veering towards artisanal produce.

On March 29, a natural wine bar called Drunken Farmer sprouted up in Dempsey. It will shift locations regularly and promote 90 natural wine labels that are a homage to their terroir as well as Mother Nature’s ups and downs. In mid-April, Drunken Farmer hosted a collective of natural winemakers called Les Vivent les Vins Libres at a three-day event that showcased the wines of 19 producers from France, Australia and South America. Aside from tastings, there were master classes and paired dinners at restaurants owned by Spa Esprit Group such as Tippling Club.

Drunken Farmer is the latest enterprise by Chua, who started a spa in 1996 and built it into a beauty and dining business that today hauls in revenues of $80 million to $100 million a year. Known for capitalising on gaps in the market and witty, sometimes risqué branding, Chua has a lock on the personal grooming business, particularly in waxing with her Strip brand and in brow treatments with the Browhaus brand. In the last 12 years, she has added restaurants, cafés and bakeries to the mix. One of them is 40 Hands, which galvanised third wave coffee in Singapore and helped turn weathered Tiong Bahru into a hipster hood.

A knack for spotting trends and knowing how to market them is one reason Chua has managed to thrive in the hyper-competitive beauty business, where the barriers to entry are low, and Singapore’s fickle F&B scene, where one in three outlets close, according to government numbers from 2016. Building on her love for essential oils and good design, she created her Spa Esprit brand of wellness salons and infused it with a quirky, East meets West vibe. Even now, in an industry awash with cookie-cutter massages, Spa Esprit stands apart with twists such as the Super Vibrator, which uses sound vibrations from singing bowls as therapy.

By 2002, Chua had discovered Brazilian waxes on her travels and felt that Singapore needed to embrace this taboo area of personal grooming. She rolled out Strip, a shop that focused on body hair waxes, and employed a huge dose of playfulness — with an orang utan leading its advertising campaign — to counter the embarrassment factor. The chic hygienic salons soon became the go-to place for waxing. Two years later, she took on eyebrow and facial hair grooming through Browhaus, with similar success.

Provocative marketing

In person, Chua is unreserved and effusive. “I’m thinking of 25 things at any one time,” she says. She is also not squeamish about controversy, whether it revolves around nether parts or cheeky ads. “The more taboo it is, the more interesting and challenging I find it,” she says. Her trademark tactic to get people on board is through humour. “Having fun, wit, laughing at ourselves, these are very important.”

It helps that she loves playing with words. That has resulted in some entertaining taglines such as “So good! It’s almost illegal” — a dig at Singapore’s chewing gum ban — for a spearmint blend handwash that Chua herself concocted. At times, the ads have been gasp-inducing; probably the most memorable has been Strip’s Unfurgivable campaign, which features an open, fur-lined clutch bag.

Chua, who studied economics and statistics at the National University of Singapore, believes in the value of branding. “We really spend on marketing,” she says, adding that the group’s marketing budget for its portfolio of 16 brands can range from 2% to 5% of revenue. Much of the marketing is done in-house, through a team of 20. The team also handles design.

In 2007, Chua ramped up operations, taking Spa Esprit to Jakarta, Manila and Kuala Lumpur. She also waded into F&B with House, set amid Dempsey’s lush greenery. “I burnt my youth in House,” says Chua, 46, half in jest. The sprawling 35,000 sq ft bar, restaurant and spa was a steep learning curve for Chua, who had to help serve tables and work weekends. ‘It took a long time to make money.” House eventually closed in early 2018.

Meanwhile, she had teamed up with Australian chef Ryan Clift to open Tippling Club in 2008. The gourmet restaurant and cocktail-driven bar has gone on to win a clutch of awards, including the 27th spot in the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017. Realising the value of partnering with like-minded food and drink professionals, she next moved into speciality coffee. At the time, the coffee scene was dominated by chains such as Starbucks at one end and kopitiams at the other. With Perth native and coffee expert Harry Grover at the helm, the group opened 40 Hands, which refers to the number of hands it takes to produce a coffee from bean to cup.

The café rode on the growth of third wave coffee, which focuses on the artisanal aspect of coffee from beans to roasting to baristas. “At first, people complained our coffee was sour,” Chua recalls. Locals were used to oily, bitter kopi sweetened with condensed milk. “Now, they talk about tasting berries in coffee!” she says. 40 Hands went on to spawn Common Man Coffee Roasters, a café and industrial coffee roastery, which recently spread its wings to Malaysia.

Farm to table

The F&B slate now makes up half of all sales and includes groundbreaking concepts such as Open Farm Community, a farm to table restaurant that grows its own herbs and sources local organic vegetables and sustainable seafood. OFC, as it is called, has fuelled interest in urban farming and farmers’ markets in the city state. “Why eat canned food if you can eat fresh food?” asks Chua of the impetus behind it. Other restaurants that have prevailed include Ding Dong, a Southeast Asian small plates restaurant, and Bochinche, a collaboration with Argentinian chef Diego Jacquet.

However, it is Tiong Bahru Bakery that is the biggest earner. “I had always wanted to open a bakery,” Chua says. “I was thinking, ‘Why are we always eating Gardenia and white bread? Where is the sourdough?’” She was introduced to Gontran Cherrier, a fourth generation Parisian baker and TV personality who was keen to do something in Singapore. Chua was impressed with Cherrier, who churned out classics such as croissants as well as creations such as squid ink baguettes and miso rye bread. The bakery opened in Tiong Bahru, injecting a fresh vibe into one of the city state’s oldest HDB estates.

Chua now plans to grow Tiong Bahru Bakery overseas through franchising, like she did with Strip and Browhaus as well as Common Man. “It took a long time to franchise the beauty business,” she says. “However, all my franchises make money.” And, while she starts businesses that resonate deeply with her, the survivor in her has learnt that passion is not enough. “Tenacity is very important,” she says. “You have to be willing to give up your weekends.”

The hard work appears to be paying off and 23 years on, with stores in 12 countries, Chua is aware she needs to let go. Succession planning and finding talent are now on the agenda for this lifestyle entrepreneur who never thought her beauty business would mushroom into a multi-million dollar international business. “I was distributing flyers outside Cold Storage, offering $5 underarm waxing,” she recalls. “It has been such a journey.” That journey has gone from spas to grooming to dining and, now, natural wine.

Sunita Sue Leng was previously an associate editor at The Edge Singapore

Revisiting the roots of winemaking

There are no pesticides or chemical fertilisers among the vines. No additives such as engineered yeast strains or clarifying agents during vinification. Every label tells a story about its microclimate and soil and every bottle has its traits, which may include some unpredictability. “Natural wine is about giving back respect and life to the soil,” says Philippe Chin, operations and wine manager of natural wine bar Drunken Farmer. Chin believes that more and more drinkers are moving towards wines that are cleaner in taste and easier to drink.

That is a departure from the 1980s and 1990s when big and bold was in vogue and the Super Tuscans reigned. Indeed, Singapore’s steamy climate does not support hard reds with high tannins, Chin explains. “At Drunken Farmer, my focus is on lighter reds, with more freshness and drinkability, as well as higher acidity,” says Montreal-born Chin who moved to Singapore a year ago.

Among the producers at Drunken Farmer’s Les Vivent les Vins Libres festival in April was Laurent Cazottes. Hailing from southwest France, this 12th generation farmer-winemaker produces unique wines and spirits, such as Champêtre Blanc. This white wine is made from the white mauzac grape, an obscure varietal native to this region of France. The wine has aromas of pears and apples and natural bubbles from its unadulterated fermentation process.

Mesnier (left) and Chin believe that natural wines are messengers of the soil

Cazottes also produces a range of natural liquers from fruit such as cherries and prunes. However, it is the 72 Tomates that stands out. This organic liquer is distilled from 72 varieties of tomatoes that Cazottes grows, many of them heirloom. On the nose, it offers whiffs of olives and leafy greens but on the palate, it surprises with a burst of fruit as well as a pinch of saltiness. It pairs well with smoked fish and ceviche and is part of an assortment of spirits that Cazottes supplies to 37 three-star Michelin restaurants in France.

From South America, there are wines made the centuries-old way, such as those from Pipeno, a co-operative of growers in Chile. Grapes are crushed by foot, pressed manually and fermented in clay jars. A very local offering is Pais, a red wine varietal that was Chile’s most planted grape until it was overtaken by Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine has earthy, smoky undertones due to the volcanic soil, says Vincent Wallard, who imports and distributes the wines.

In a class of its own is Domaine des Hauts Baigneux. This small winery began in 2013, when two long-time friends, Nicolas Grosbois and Philippe Mesnier, acquired 12ha of vines in Azay-le-Rideau, three hours southwest of Paris in the Loire Valley. They farm all the vines organically. Among their most well-received wines is a “salty” Blanc Chenin, a silky white wine with a touch of saltiness.

Mesnier explains that the salt comes from the minerality of the soil, which comprises 3m of clay and some limestone. The climate is on the cold side. “I’m proud of the terroir,” he says, adding that his single-vineyard Blanc Chenin is produced with natural yeast and oaked for 15 months. From another pocket of the vineyard, Mesnier produces another showstopper from Chenin Blanc grapes under the Clos des Brancs label. This tiny plot is dotted with flint, making the white wine heft and lush.

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