Fast-growing frozen food group has a strong appetite for success

Strong Roots founder Samuel Dennigan is looking to build a €100m business in just seven years

Strong Roots founder and chief executive Samuel Dennigan at the company’s Dublin headquarters. Photograph: Tom Maher

Strong Roots founder and chief executive Samuel Dennigan at the company’s Dublin headquarters. Photograph: Tom Maher

 

Samuel Dennigan is, in his own words, “very good at vegging”. It’s an unwitting pun from the Dubliner whose fast-growing frozen food business, Strong Roots, is becoming a household name.

“It’s true though,” he adds. “A lot of people feel guilty about doing nothing, but not me. Given that I work hard, I’m actually quite proud of being able to just stop.”

Not that he has much time to relax. Dennigan is constantly on the move these days, flitting between Dublin, London and New York, as he spreads the message about his group’s plant-based products – such as cauliflower hash browns and spinach bites – to a market increasingly open to healthy non-meat alternatives.

Right now there seems to be no stopping the Irishman. Having conquered the frozen sections of supermarkets here and in Britain, he is now looking to do the same in the United States.

Living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and with a swanky new company office in Manhattan, Dennigan is a frequent visitor back home, but he’s putting down roots in the US and is in the process of buying a house in Jersey City for himself, his wife Amelia and their 13-month old son Joseph.

On a return trip to Dublin this week, Dennigan is keen to showcase the company’s new products at its Irish headquarters at Terminus Mills on the Clonskeagh Road.

A warm character who steers away from the corporate jargon used by many entrepreneurs, Dennigan is all business as he gives a guided tour of the headquarters, which comes complete with a showcase store and kitchen.

Sitting down to taste-test the company’s latest lines (which can’t be revealed as yet), he’s also eager to talk about how Strong Roots is looking to diversify and eventually become a company that is every bit as big as Kerry Group or even Kraft Heinz.

Strong Roots specialises in healthy frozen vegetable products, including kale-and-quinoa burgers, roasted beetroot wedges and sweet potato fries. It is on a roll of late, boosted by a cultural shift away from consuming meat driven by a growing awareness of health and environmental issues.

The company is – as Dennigan apologies for saying – benefiting from the fact that “frozen is cool”.

Older people may still recoil at the memory of Findus crispy pancakes, but a younger generation of consumers can’t get enough of frozen.

The category has gone seriously upmarket in recent years and the move has paid off, as is evident in the United Kingdom, where sales topped £6.2 billion (€7.2 billion) in the 12 months to the end of September 2018.

Dennigan moved to the United States last year to coincide with the launch of Strong Roots there in May. Prior to that, he had spent a few years living in London to help to scale the business, which he founded in Dublin in 2015.

Having achieved early success locally, Strong Roots launched in Britain just under two years ago. Its products are now stocked by all the major grocery retailers there, including Tesco, Asda, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s.

“Co-Op and Iceland were the last big ones to hold out, but we’ve just gone live with them in the last few weeks. We’re still not in the German discounters, but they have actually been in contact and so we’re talking to them, although obviously we need to figure a way to sell to them without eroding market value,” says Dennigan.

The company, which employs 36 people, has come a long way in a few short years and has collected a number of gongs along the way, including the Local Enterprise of the Year award at The Irish Times Business Awards last year. Dennigan was also a finalist in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards in 2017.

Investment Strong Roots is targeting revenues of €100 million by 2022, a pretty impressive target just six years after recording sales of €2 million in its first full year. The company is now ramping up for further growth after securing $18.3 million (€16.4 million) in investment in a funding round led by New York private equity firm Goode Partners to fuel US expansion.

“We’re aiming to do between €60 million and €70 million this year in retail value, which is far from where we started out. I think it is very attainable and believe we could even do more than that,” says Dennigan.

“The UK is by far and away our biggest market right now, followed by Ireland, with the US currently accounting for about 15 per cent of revenues.

“We’re doing well there though. We wanted to do $2 million in retail sales in our first six months there and we managed that.

“We’re in Safeway and Target and have done a trial with a large number of independents. We have around 2,000 distribution points right now in the US and are in 4,000 stores” he adds.

Outside of its main markets, the company’s products are also available in Singapore, Iceland, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar.

“We expect to do about 20 million packs this year, which is a huge number for us,” says Dennigan.

He says the recent fundraise has given the company extra firepower, allowing it to flex its muscles a bit more. The business has increased its spend on advertising and is looking to take on C-suite executives who have previous experience in scaling companies at speed.

Strong Roots’ initial strategy was to launch in the mid-Atlantic region, which includes the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as Washington DC. However, feedback from customers suggested the brand had broad enough appeal to go nationwide from the get-go, which is what it ended up doing.

While Dennigan is proud of what the company has achieved in the US to date, he has no doubt about the task ahead of him as he looks to gain traction in a market where, instead of competing against three or four rivals, he now has countless competitors, including some of the biggest food companies in the world.

“The shift in consumption trends has far surpassed what I imagined when setting up Strong Roots,” he says.

“I’ve been watching with interest the flood of fast-food chains looking to offer plant-based burgers, but I’m not sure whether people see them as anything other than a novelty product at the moment,” Dennigan adds.

He says it is not enough to just offer meatless alternatives. When consumers are looking at changing their lifestyle they want to back brands that are “the real deal”.

“Part of the reason why we’re winning big is that customers believe we are offering simple, real food, whereas there is a questionable process at work where big meat companies . . . are processing fake meat patties and it is purely just for short-term gain,” Dennigan adds.

He cites Strong Roots’ different stance, focusing on a strategy he calls “consumer packaged good”, which sees the company putting its money where its mouth is in terms of sustainability. It is currently seeking B Corp status – an international certification for business that undertakes environmental and other sustainable efforts.

Background Still only 34, it might seem inevitable that Dennigan would end up working in the food sector. His grandfather is the man behind Sam Dennigan and Company, the north Dublin-based business that specialises in the distribution of fresh fruit and vegetables. The family-run business employs 350 people and has an annual turnover of more than €100 million.

But not so, according to the entrepreneur. He originally planned to study at NCAD in Dublin, but he didn’t get a place. He ended up doing a diploma in art and design at Ulster University instead. He then applied to NCAD again but walked out as term began, deciding that he did want to be a part of the family business after all.

While working there, he launched two brands – Samuel’s Potatoes and Green Giant Fresh which, while failing to take off, instilled in him the buzz to do his own thing. Having done his research, he realised that there had been little to no innovation in the frozen food category in decades. He set up Strong Roots with a plan to revolutionise the sector. He found a willing audience almost immediately.

“My family were very supportive in letting me go and set up the business, but neither they nor I could have ever imagined that it would be so successful so soon. It took the family business 40 years or so to become a big part of the industry it is in: we’re on the way to doing something similar in less than five,” Dennigan says.

“I’m not taking the level of success we’ve had for granted. I could lose it all tomorrow, so I feel as though I should run it like I might and that’s something I learned from my father and grandfather,” he adds.

Health-conscious Another thing Dennigan doesn’t take for granted is his health. He admits to coming near to breaking point in the run-up to securing investment last year. The impact of that and the wish to set a good example to employees and his own son has seen him step back a little.

“I have sometimes worked hard but not smart and I’m trying to change that, which means not spending hours sending emails after Joseph has gone to sleep, although I still go into work on Saturdays.”

Dennigan says he hasn’t actively played the Irish card too much in the US although he admits that an awareness in that market of the high quality of goods from Ireland isn’t doing the business any harm. He’s enjoying his time in New York and “still loves the surrealness of driving in and out of Manhattan”.

Having committed to living in the US with the house purchase, he’s happy to be out there – though the family will return home at some point as both Dennigan his wife Amelia want to send Joseph to school back here.

With Strong Roots, he’s thinking big and he sees no reason why the company can’t move beyond its origins, citing Kerry Group and its move into ingredients as an example of how a business can shift focus.

Right now though, he just wants to keep building what he’s got into a global brand. “We want to have mass-appeal products. Healthy eating isn’t about making people feel guilty but about how easy it is to have a flexible balanced diet. We have no interest in being preachy about their eating habits,” he says.

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