Sunday 18 November 2018

Ripe for change: frozen food chief's fresh ideas are a hit

Sean Gallagher with Samuel Dennigan of innovative frozen food startup Strong Roots. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Sean Gallagher with Samuel Dennigan of innovative frozen food startup Strong Roots. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Samuel Dennigan may only have set up his frozen food company, Strong Roots, in 2015 but already he has succeeded in breaking into the Irish, Northern Ireland, UK and Middle Eastern markets.

With offices in Dublin and London, he now employs 13 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €2m.

“We’re a new startup food company from Dublin that is bringing frozen food back from the dead,” says an upbeat and confident Samuel when I visited him in SuperValu on the Newcastle Road in Lucan.

“We are now stocked in all major retail chains in Ireland including SuperValu, Dunnes Stores, Tesco, BWG and Centra as well as most leading independent outlets. We also distribute into Northern Ireland, and are in around 200 Waitrose stores in the UK as well as the specialist wholefood retailer Wholefoods Market and we are soon to launch in the Middle East,” he adds.

The company has four products in its portfolio — oven-baked sweet potato fries, garlic roasted sweet potato cubes, kale and quinoa burgers and ripened avocado halves.

Given that these are gluten-free, low in saturated fats, low in salt and are a source of fibre, they have become an instant hit with health-conscious consumers and busy families looking for a convenient but healthy food option. 

Although a startup entrepreneur, Samuel is not new to the food sector. In fact, he has grown up in the business.

His father Joe and uncle Sam run a leading food producers and distributors, Sam Dennigan and Co, which was set up more than 40 years ago by Samuel’s grandfather, Sam.

After school, Samuel went to Art College in Belfast for a year before deciding to return to Dublin to join the family business for the summer.

“I quickly realised that business suited me better than the creative and so the summer job became a passion and a career that I could never leave,” he says.

For the next 10 years, Samuel immersed himself in every aspect of the business, from sales and marketing to operations and logistics. Over that period, he progressed from working in the fruit and vegetable market in Dublin and with local farmers and producers in Ireland to travelling all over the world to dealing with growers, manufacturers and retailers.

During his time with the company, he managed the development of the Sam’s Potatoes brand as well as a sub-licensed global brand, Green Giant Fresh. It was then, that he realised that his passion and strengths lay in being able to create and build a brand.

“That’s when I also realised that I wanted to start my own business,” says Samuel. “Throughout my career in the fresh food business, I saw that one of the biggest restrictors to exporting was the perishability of fresh produce. However, I grew to understand that frozen brings all the benefits of fresh vegetables but without the perishability,” he adds.

Convinced that there was an opening for a company that could become an innovator and challenger within the sector, Samuel set up Strong Roots in 2015.

“For example, our ripened avocado halves are a ‘first’ in the market. This is because it’s often difficult for consumers to find perfectly ripe avocados and hard for retailers to predict the demand so we thought, why not ripenthem at source in Peru and then freeze them,” he says.

“We are also working on eight new products that complement the items we already have such as a new burger recipe and some new on-trend vegetable fries which the market hasn’t seen before. These will be delicious, helpfully convenient and — as always — innovative.”

Although starting with a strong knowledge base and key contacts in the industry. Samuel still faced many challenges in scaling his new enterprise — especially in the areas of production and logistics, distribution and finance. However, his experience in these areas was crucial to overcoming these obstacles.

He began by travelling around the world to source producers, manufacturing firms and third-party logistics firms with whom he could partner. In the US — a land of opportunity for Irish businesses —he focused on what he knew was the single most important part of growing a successful food business: developing distribution channels through leading retailers. Here, he concentrated not only on building relationships with the buyers in the head offices of these retail chain but with those who delivered the products, packed the shelves or served the customers.

Now, with more than 1,500 stores to service, he has a dedicated team of five staff whose job it is to visit each store regularly to ensure that such relationships are maintained.

Cash flow too was an important factor particularly given the amount of product required to stock each outlet as well as maintaining a buffer stock in the event some stores run short.

To fund the business, Samuel and his wife invested all their savings. “Instead of investing in a house as many other couples might, we decided, instead, to invest in our own business,” says Samuel.

Thankfully for them, their investment has now begun to pay off. They recently opened an office in London and have moved there to help drive sales in the UK.

They have also begun receiving strong interest from retailers in places such as Iceland, Scandinavia and Singapore. To add to all this, they are carrying out research with a view to entering the US market in the near future.

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