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EATING HEALTHY, LIVING WELL: Work in progress behind the scenes at Artisan Boulangerie Co.

EATING HEALTHY, LIVING WELL: The movement towards buying food that is made with care by a passionate home chef with a passion for healthful recipes and ingredients has been picking up; Artisan Boulangerie Co fully embraces and flaunts its artisanal credentials.

EATING HEALTHY, LIVING WELL: Quality ingredients are reflected in the final products of The Edible Company.

EATING HEALTHY, LIVING WELL: Nutteree products are handmade in small batches with quality ingredients and they contain no artificial flavours, colours, preservatives or nasties such as high fructose corn syrup.

'Artisanal' overload

When even fast-food joints are jumping on the 'artisanal' bandwagon, consumers will have to be more discerning to appreciate the origins, process and ingredients that go into such products.
Aug 29, 2015 5:50 AM

WANDER into any flea market on a weekend - and yes, there is a market every weekend - and you'll find familiar foods given a gourmet upgrade. From fried fish skin with salted egg yolk dips to popsicles in flavours such as mango sticky rice and nut butters with sea salt, each hand-made from personally derived recipes in small batches, it almost makes one want to clear the pantry of all supermarket-bought, preservative-filled produce. After all, how could your humble jar of fructose-laden jam, family-size double pint of jagung ice cream and made-in-China can of spam co-habitate with such rarefied forms of consumables?

Until you pass out from sticker shock, that is.

At S$15 a jar of almond butter, S$7 per popsicle and S$10 a pack of crispy fish skin (when it costs just S$2 for the raw stuff and requires just a whirl in the air fryer for a similar crunch), one almost feels like the proverbial emperor in his new clothes - artisanal is the new essential, but is it really that much better than basic bites?

Traditionally, the artisanal label is used for items that require special craft or skills to produce, or items that have high quality ingredients, according to Elison Lim, assistant professor at the College of Business, National University of Singapore.

"There is certainly a growing interest in non-mass produced items, especially when consumers are becomingly increasingly affluent," adds Prof Lim, whose research interests lie in the area of consumer behaviour, with a focus on understanding the role of emotions in interactions between consumers and marketers.

"Consumers generally believe that such products are made with greater care, or with better or fresher ingredients. Such products also offer some level of exclusivity that appeals to the middle-class consumers - which is a growing segment - who are often willing to pay a little more for a higher perceived quality than the mass brands sold in the supermarkets."

Market intelligence company Datamonitor has even published a report on the "authenticity sub-trend" earlier this year, claiming that 63 per cent of international consumers are highly influenced by the claim of "authenticity", and associate it with other terms like "craft", "small batch", and "artisan" that influence their view of products or brands.

Co-opted by major food manufacturers ranging from McDonald's to Domino's, the tsunami of "artisan washing" has reached our shores as an increasing number of well-travelled entrepreneurs with an eye for snazzy design and witty brand names create scrumptious products in their home kitchens. Breads, spreads, sodas and juices now proudly brandish the "artisanal" tag, but is it really worth all the fuss?

"For one, I hate the word 'artisanal'," says Genevieve Lee-Woon, founder of granola brand The Edible Company. "Artisans for me belong in the crafts world. Where an old traditional skill is being used to make a product. I never want my products to be artisanal although it's probably labelled as that already. We seem higher priced because we are not mass-produced and our ingredients have quality. We buy these ingredients at a high price because it's a good product and that has to be reflected on the cost of the final product. It's inevitable."

Ms Lee-Woon launched the company in February last year after she was unable to find delicious granola that is not overpriced or loaded with sugar and processed ingredients. She has mixed flavours such as a granola baked with cacao and muddled with roselle flower for dark chocolate lovers, and coconut gula melaka. Sales in the past six months has grown 50 per cent, says the maker.

Similarly, Janine Campbell, founder of almond and cashew nut butter brand Nutteree, also created her line-up of hand-crafted food due to necessity. Allergic to peanuts, she decided to experiment with making her own spreads using other nuts.

"An artisanal product that's handmade in small batches with quality ingredients will certainly cost a bit more than the average factory mass-produced brand," explains Ms Campbell. "But take a look at the ingredients on the label and you will see the difference."

Her latest concoction, for example, is a snack formed by coating oven-baked almonds with honey and maple roasted pecans. Because the nuts are baked, not fried, the snack is also that much healthier than an average bag of salted nuts from the provision shop. Each recipe uses five ingredients or fewer and contains no artificial flavours, colours, preservatives or nasties such as high fructose corn syrup. Hence, there is an assumption that artisanal foods are better for you, as compared to mass produced alternatives.

One company that fully embraces and flaunts its artisanal credentials is Artisan Boulangerie Co. Launched in 2013 by French chef Eran Mayer, the rather prosaically named, small neighbourhood bakery has since expanded to nine outlets, which boasts menus that include cafe classics and bistro-type entrees.

"As Singaporean consumers become more aware of what they consume, not only do they have a growing appreciation for artisanal foods and drinks, they are also demanding healthier, higher quality products," says Nikhil Parikh, chief marketing officer of The Zest Group, the parent company of Artisan Boulangerie Co.

"This is a trend that is here to stay. As a result, many F&B companies (including fast food chains) are revamping their offerings to provide 'better' food. High quality ingredients have always been core to the ABC brand and we are expanding into areas such as organic ingredients, healthy-lifestyle ingredients like kale and quinoa, and gluten-free options."

Due to its aspirational and conscionable connotations, it's no wonder that the "artisanal" label has been abused and overused time and again - most often by mega food corporations that are the antithesis of independent craftsmen. Think packaged peanut butter cookies by Hershey's owned brand Reese's, tins of stock and soup by Campbell's, and a range of pizzas by Domino's (which has since been discontinued).

"Today, the term is used rather loosely and may sometimes mislead consumers to believe that the items are of high quality," adds Prof Lim.

"So, if an item has the 'artisanal' label on it, it's always a good idea for consumers to get to know the 'artisans' or process behind the products - in the true artisanal cases, you often find someone who will passionately explain the manufacturing process and the ingredients used.

"Consumers can then gauge for themselves whether it is worth the premium they will be paying for, and make a more informed decision."

Closer to home, the movement towards buying food that is made with care by a passionate home chef with a passion for healthful recipes and ingredients has been picking up as part of a larger shift towards taking better care of oneself - especially given our fast-paced, high-stress urban lifestyle.

"It probably started as a trend early last year, when small-batch companies making various products started popping up on the market," notes Ms Lee-Woon.

"I think it was the fact that the mass media caught the wave and those of us who were on it, benefitted. But the appreciation of eating healthy, living well and exercising have been going on an uphill boom over the last few years.

"More mass runs are being held over the years, yoga places and gyms sprouting everywhere so the appreciation for healthy living had already been around, just that the idea of small-batch (healthy) products is rather new."

And as much as social climbers might make a show of their affluence by dining out at celebrity restaurants or amassing a collection of rare single malts, being in the know about artisans and their craft is another indication of discernment.

"I would say that such products are probably targeted at people who appreciate the work of independent craftsmen that they can trace the origins of the products to, appreciate being informed about the process and ingredients that go into the products, and who are willing to pay a premium for this knowledge," explains Prof Lim.

"Consumers in the middle-income segment are often the most aspirational group - not only do they identify with the hard work of the craftsmen, they are also most likely to be willing to pay a premium to support them while pampering themselves with affordable indulgences."

While less-than-honest, over-enthusiastic marketers might try to pull the wool, or more likely, acrylic over consumers' eyes with such sneaky labelling methods, ultimately the modern-day epicurean is bound to tell the difference between cookies mass produced in central kitchens and a natural biscuit that has been baked from scratch.

"We all know that consumers are highly sophisticated in their tastes and hold brands accountable for their claims," says Mr Parikh. "If you don't deliver on high quality, artisanal claims, your customers will know. And they will be sure to let you know it."