How Romy Sia built a niche market with Healthy Options | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

A cellar for everyday wines —PHOTOS BY NELSON MATAWARAN
A cellar for everyday wines —PHOTOS BY NELSON MATAWARAN

Romeo “Romy” Sia, founder of Healthy Options and Wine Story, has invested in building experiential flagship stores in Taguig City. Beyond offering premium products, Healthy Options at Uptown Mall and the new branch of Wine Story at One Uptown engross customers in a lifestyle.

“Brick-and-mortar stores are being threatened by e-commerce,” he says. “How do I get my customers to come to my stores? It’s easy to order online. But I want to forge a connection with customers through a personalized experience where they can smell the bread or share a bottle of wine with friends.”

At Healthy Options in Uptown Mall, the come-on is the Baking Therapy café of artisanal and gluten-free breads and pastries prepared by a French baker and pastry chef, and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

The commissary in Libis, Quezon City, has separate kitchens for gluten-free and European breads. “The air-conditioning, the toilets and uniforms are different. I want to make sure there is no contamination in the crust,” says Sia.

The eyes are drawn to the colorful organic produce. Sia says the company transports the vegetables in a temperature-controlled van to maintain freshness. The warehouse is equipped with refrigerators with food preservation systems.

The organic beef, chicken and eggs undergo strict quality assurance. The pork is taken to the lab and tested for veterinary drug residue.

The attention to quality control and sanitation come at a price, he says. Hence, some people have dubbed the brand as “Wealthy Options.”

At the flagship Wine Story, the customer will immediately feel the immersive retail experience upon entrance. There are Instagrammable corners, such as a video wall of a vineyard in Bordeaux, an alley with preserved grape vines and a temperature-controlled wine cellar with pretty arches, reminiscent of a chateau.

Wine angels

The “wine angels” create a “luxury experience” by conversing with customers on what is special about the wines, assist them in the selection, and guide them through the various sections for everyday wines, Bordeaux wines, Old World wines, collectibles and high-value wines.

Customers can enroll in classes on wine. You can also savor the wines while munching on premium cheeses and cold cuts.

Before the term “experiential retail” became popular, Sia already concentrated on educating a customer rather than pushing sales. “I believe that an educated customer is a good customer. If the customer is not familiar with the product, they will look at the price and say, ‘Ang mahal.’ But if they know what is good about the product, they will appreciate its value.”

Sia’s niche in high-end specialty retail is a contrast to his humble beginnings. He grew up in Quiapo in a typical Chinese house; the parents’ textile business was on the ground floor, while the family lived on the second floor.

After graduating from the University of Santo Tomas with a degree in commerce, Sia sold a skin-whitening product in Divisoria, then joined the corporate world in HSBC.

Romy Sia at the new Wine Story’s section for Bordeaux wines

In the early ’80s, he moved to the United Kingdom, working at the finance departments of various companies. One day, his friend, Christian Tan, an entrepreneur, visited him in London.

Since Tan had an automotive business, he was in control of his time. He advised Sia to become an entrepreneur while he was still young and had the energy.

Not wanting to retire in the UK, Sia and his British wife, Janet Oldfield, and their two children, Jasmine and Sean, moved back to the Philippines in 1992. He first joined SkyCable then ABS-CBN as finance controller.

When Sean had allergies, Sia could not source foods in the Philippines that were free from allergens and additives.

Lured by an advertisement, he flew to Anaheim, California, for the Natural Products Expo. Sia was lucky to meet a distributor who helped him select the foods.

Sia broached to Tan the idea of venturing into health food. Tan has since become his silent partner for both Healthy Options and Wine Story.

When Healthy Options opened in 1995, the store focused on food. Eventually customers clamored for supplements.

At a health food trade fair, Sia met a manufacturer who offered to produce supplements under the Healthy Options brand. When he visited the manufacturing plant, he was impressed to learn that it also produced private labels for such companies as Whole Foods Market Inc., an American multinational grocer of health products.

“Everything under the Healthy Options label is made and packed in the United States to maintain the quality. I can tell my customers, ‘I didn’t touch this,” Sia says.

Visiting chateaux

Wine Story was born out of Sia’s curiosity. He was mesmerized by the book, “Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Wine.” Author Benjamin Wallace intertwined a detective story with wine history.

Sia flew to Bordeaux to attend a trade fair in 2009. Not only did he meet the right people to help him in merchandising, but he visited chateaux to learn more about wine culture and history.

He envisioned Wine Story as a classy place where customers left not just with the product, but also with a better understanding of wine.

“I didn’t want my store to look like a supermarket. I visited Chanel, Dior and Luis Vuitton to observe how the products were displayed. I said to myself, ‘I will display my wines like this,’” he says.

In 2010, the first Wine Story at Shangri-La Plaza distinguished itself from other wine stores with its powerful visual merchandising and wine-savvy associates.

The Wine Story at Uptown Residences specializes in Bordeaux wines, which he likens to the Hermès of wines.

Investment in manpower

Sia attributes the successes of Wine Story and Healthy Options to investment in manpower. The sales associates at Healthy Options are given a monthly allowance of P3,000 for the products. The staffers of Wine Story get a free bottle of wine every month.

“If they don’t try the product, how can they convince the customers? I need to make my employees believe in me first,” says Sia.

Silent partner Christian Tan byWine Story’s “vineyard”

After a busy day, he retires to his pied-a-terre in Ortigas. He goes to his house in Laguna on weekends. Separated from his wife, he lives alone. Jasmine has moved to London, and Sean lives in his condo and works as a buyer for Wine Story.

Living a healthy lifestyle, Sia starts his day with a continental breakfast of San Francisco coffee and artisanal bread. “I love crusty bread. That is how I started Baking Therapy,” he says.

He then pops glucosamine with chondroitin pills for his joints. “I just turned 60,” he says. “I don’t have a senior card yet because I’m still in denial.”

His lunch tends to be plant-based, such as steamed vegetables, broccoli and cauliflower with butter and quinoa. At night, he relaxes with wine before dinner.

“I cook galunggong with kangkong. I’m a creature of habit,” he says.

Sia is looking forward to 2020, when Healthy Options will mark its silver anniversary, and Wine Story will turn 10. “This is why we keep pushing the envelope. In Wine Story, we put the Philippines on the map. Bordeaux people who go to New York say, ‘There is a wine store in the Philippines which has done an amazing job!’”

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