Sunday 23 October 2016

My Big Idea: The Dubliner who's marketing frozen veg in a fresh way

Published 19/05/2016 | 02:30

Sam Dennigan, founder of the Strong Roots food company
Sam Dennigan, founder of the Strong Roots food company

Sam Dennigan (30) from Oldtown in North County Dublin is the founder of Strong Roots, a new frozen sweet potato chip brand.

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"For ten years I worked for my family's business, Sam Dennigan & Company, one of Ireland's biggest fruit and vegetable distributors. I worked across all parts of the business, from market stalls to IT and eventually to sales and marketing, where I managed several frozen vegetable brands.

It was there I saw the opportunity for Strong Roots. Frozen vegetables have always been marketed in quite a boring way and perceived as low quality by consumers, whereas lots of fresh vegetables are going through a sort of renaissance, with products like kale and courgette growing rapidly in popularity as shoppers become more health-conscious.

I realised there was a gap in the market for a frozen vegetable that was marketed like a fresh one.

Frozen vegetables are also a good option for a startup because fresh veg is so perishable that it limits your export potential. Frozen food can be held for up to two years.

I did a lot of research and travel to find a product that would work. I settled on sweet potato fries because sweet potato has soared in popularity in recent years - there's huge demand for it now - but preparing it can be tricky.

In my previous role I had managed procurement at one stage and had sourced a large sweet potato contract for a UK company, from a supplier in North Carolina in the US where a lot of the sweet potato consumed in Europe is grown.

The supplier said that the best way to get the freshest product was to finish it in the US and then ship it. The manufacturer didn't follow that advice but it stuck with me and I settled on that option for Strong Roots.

I was accepted onto the Bord Bia/SuperValu Food Academy acceleration programme in April of last year and officially launched the brand at the National Ploughing Championships in September.

Our first stockist was SuperValu. Normally companies that go through the Food Academy programme start out in 10 stores but because of my background in food and the fact that we had a lot of capacity from the beginning, we were stocked in 100 stores from the start.

By Christmas we were in all 200-plus SuperValus nationwide. At the end of March we launched in Dunnes and also have agreements with Hendersons and Musgrave in Northern Ireland. The plan is to expand into the UK and we are working with two major British companies on that.

I intend to introduce more products, another made from sweet potato and two more from other healthy vegetables. Vegetables like kale, beet, celeriac and avocado are the focus, ones which are not currently represented in the frozen food isle and are growing in popularity.

Five people work on the business now and we are growing fast. It's been fantastic.

I initially funded everything myself but that was only sustainable for so long, so we secured a line of credit from Bank of Ireland. Giving away equity may be on the cards to assist the company's expansion in the UK because it is such a big market.

I'm keen that we hire great people, and they tend to be expensive, so an employee stock option scheme may be looked at.

The biggest challenge has been getting used to running all elements of the business, from finance to HR to marketing to strategy to all the niggling little issues that come with running a start-up.

I was used to just looking after my own department, be it marketing or whatever. That shift has taken a bit of getting used to."

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