Strong Roots food firm works up a €100m appetite

Trish Dromey hears from Strong Roots’ Samuel Dennigan of plans for exponential growth in 2017

CEO and founder of Strong Roots, Samuel Dennigan. Picture: Mark Stedman

DUBLIN start-up Strong Roots is aiming to heat up the competition in the frozen food aisles with a range of products that includes sweet potato fries and kale and quinoa burgers.

Winner of this year’s Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur award in the Start Up category, the company has developed nationwide sales in Ireland and also begun exporting to the UK since launching on the market in 2015.

Strong Roots founder and CEO Samuel Dennigan says his aim has been to revolutionise the frozen fruit and vegetables sector, which he believes has been stagnating for decades due to a lack of innovation.

Two years after setting up, his company has a staff of 13, four products, and ambitious growth projections.

“We have grown turnover by 1,500% in the last year — our aim is to be a €100m brand within five years,” said Mr Dennigan, who plans to target the £6bn frozen food market in the UK.

While working in his family’s food distribution business, Mr Dennigan decided a few years ago to take a fresh look a frozen foods, initially considering them as an option to develop exports of Irish vegetables.

Further investigation revealed that this was a neglected space, ripe with potential for a start-up company which could develop new products to cater for changing trends in consumer demand.

Using €100,000 that he had planned to buy a house with, he set up Strong Roots in Dublin and quickly identified his first product as “sweet potatoes, which have been soaring in popularity in recent years”.

Having tried unsuccessfully to have them grown them in Ireland in commercially viable volumes, he found a grower in North Carolina with a production facility that was willing to produce oven-baked sweet potato fries for Strong Roots.

“We took part in the Supervalu Food Academy stores and began selling to 20 stores in the Dublin area. By November 2015 we were in 100 stores and in January 2016 we went in to all 221 Supervalu stores,” said Mr Dennigan.

His next step was to work on a range of frozen food products. “Our focus was on developing healthy, tasty and innovative alternatives to the boring options in supermarket freezer cabinets. We wanted products which would be very hard to replicate and we didn’t want to make anything that was already there,” he said.

He also took an innovative approach to packaging and marketing products.

“Frozen foods are typically packed in bright, shiny bags but we chose a very simple look with a bag with matte printing, that’s never been done in frozen foods before,” he added.

By the end of last year Strong Roots had three additional new products — ripened avocado halves produced for the company in Peru; kale and quinoa burgers manufactured in Austria; and sweet potato with garlic.

During 2016, the company’s main focus was on growing sales in Ireland.

“In addition to supplying Supervalu, we now sell to Dunnes, Tesco, Spar, Londis, Mace, and all the independents,” said Mr Dennigan, estimating that Strong Roots products are now in freezer cabinets in 2,000 stores.

The company’s first export customer was Wholefoods Market UK in October, and since last month it has been supplying 185 Waitrose stores.

Strong Roots has also taken on a distributor supplying the Middle East and Singapore, directly from Ireland.

Exports account for just 5% of sales, but Mr Dennigan aims to increase this to 40%. The focus now is on the UK but long-term the company plans to sell to Europe, the US, and Asia, he said.

The company is planning to include Irish vegetables in its range this year and is working on “innovating and improving” traditional products which will be produced here under contract.

Strong Roots, which has to date secured €1m in investment, is also planning to fundraise in order to launch with a major UK retailer.

Targeting 1,000% growth for 2017, Mr Dennigan says plans include up to six new products and four more UK staff.

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