Monday 24 April 2017

Rooting for Success: This fruit and veg man is changing the way Ireland thinks about frozen foods

Sam Dennigan Credit: Strong Roots
Sam Dennigan Credit: Strong Roots

Ellie Donnelly

Sam Dennigan’s background is fresh fruit and vegetables. Yet Dennigan is on a mission to get us to the frozen food aisle.

Graduating from Art College in 2006, he started working for the family business, a fresh fruit and vegetable wholesalers, where he worked for ten years before striking out on his own.

Dennigan worked across all parts of the business, from the fruit market pitch on Mary’s Lane to procurement, and eventually to sales and marketing where he managed several vegetable brands.

So how did he go from fresh fruit and veg to setting up a company that today supplies frozen food to all the major supermarkets in Ireland as well as Wholefoods and Waitrose in the UK?

Garlic Roasted Sweet Potato Credit: Strong Roots
Garlic Roasted Sweet Potato Credit: Strong Roots
Oven Baked Sweet Potato Credit: Strong Roots
Kale Quinoa Burger Credit: Strong Roots

“I looked at frozen brands and how they were existing and I saw a massive opportunity to rejig the frozen foods section. No one talks about good quality frozen foods.

And that’s what Strong Roots is about, quality frozen foods.

“We also did a lot of research in the USA, as they don’t view the frozen food isle as an unhealthy place to go because of the products that are in the frozen foods section there”, he says.

“In particular we looked at Wholefoods USA. From our research we knew that our product could be a success and we knew that getting into Wholefoods UK could be a big win for us. Sweet potato fries are now the number one selling product in the frozen section of the Wholefoods UK flagship store” Dennigan says.

What role then does Dennigan himself play in the company?

“My role is that of CEO, I look after all departments, what’s going on, what’s the strategy, what’s the outlook. We now have two companies, one for the Irish market and one for the UK market. I’m currently based in UK as we are trying to get into all main retailers in there. We are in almost all food retailers in Ireland.”

Sam Dennigan Credit: Strong Roots
Sam Dennigan Credit: Strong Roots

“In May 2015 I look on an unpaid intern, three months later I was in a position to employ her, and now she is the Head of Brands and Marketing. By the end of 2017 we hope to have seventeen people employed across Ireland and the UK.”

We discuss the products, and Dennigan says that the sweet potatoes used come from North Carolina as the climate there is more suitable for growing sweet potatoes.

Meanwhile, their avocados are grown in Peru, while the quinoa used in their kale and quinoa burgers is sustainably grown in Austria.

UK Success

A major recent success for Strong Roots has been the deal announced with the Waitrose supermarket chain in the UK. The Strong Roots products are now available in almost 200 Waitrose stores across the UK.

In speaking about the Waitrose success Dennigan talks about how from day one Waitrose really understood the product, the brand, and what they were trying to achieve.

“We focused on Waitrose as they understood what we were trying to achieve. Waitrose is known as innovation leaders and they were willing to take a risk on a new type of product.

“While we are changing the way people view a category of food, ultimately we are selling vegetables.

I like to look at myself as a new age green grocery.

Advice

Dennigan acknowledges that the industry is not always easy and his advice to food entrepreneurs starting out is to decide as early as possible how big you want your product or company to be.

“It’s different going from farmers market to mass distribution, you need to decide very early on how big you want to be. Have that frank conversation with yourself. Do I want to be an independent seller? Do I want to have an Irish brand, or do I want a global brand?

“When you are doing something you love, the more you do it, the further you want to go, but in the beginning for me it was about telling a story and seeing how successful we could be. First satisfy what your personal needs are. Doing what you really want should result in a success.

Read more: 'I felt like I failed my children...they were my inspiration for the business - I had lost sight of that'

“Also, we received a lot of support from the local state enterprise office, they have been incredible, they really support the entrepreneur.”

Social media

A key feature of the Strong Roots success has been their social media presence, in particular their ‘Keep Digging – Adventures of a Food Truck with a Blank Cookbook’ series.

Already there has been one episode where two of the team took their blank cookbook to Tedfest and, using the sweet potato fries, cooked up a storm on Inishmore.

The idea behind this, Dennigan says is that “you don’t need another cook book, consolidate what you have learned.

Our target audience makes up their own rules and they are not afraid go out and try something new.

“The customer we market to wants fresh food and they enjoy cooking, but everyone had discounted the frozen isle as something that is not healthy. This is something we are changing and as a result of the brand, frozen foods are seeing growth.”

Dennigan concludes by assuring us that we can expect five more episodes from the ‘Food Truck with a Blank Cookbook’ so watch this space for more fun and delicious recipes.

For now, Dennigan’s next step is into the Middle East where the Strong Roots products will be launched in the coming weeks with a number of supermarkets.

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