Food entrepreneurs need to be made of stern stuff. Production is hard physical work and they often start off doing everything themselves from making and packing to selling and distribution. So it was for the founder of Shoots and Roots, Phil Smith, who launched his vegan foods business almost four years ago with a single stall at a farmers' market. Today, his company employs five people and supplies 10 Avoca and eight SuperValu stores and sells at five farmers' markets.
Smith started Shoots and Roots from his mother-in-law’s kitchen table with a tiny budget. Sales funded the business week to week and all was good until growing demand necessitated a bigger kitchen. Smith began renting a kitchen in a sports club and had to carry his cooking equipment and ingredients up two flights of stairs every morning and down again in the evening. His breakthrough came when he got the chance to move into a commercial kitchen in the Swords Enterprise Park.
“I took out my first loan to kit it out and I also took on a full-time chef to help with production,” says Smith who still works an 80-hour week and whose burger products are aimed at vegans, vegetarians, those who want a healthy convenience food or are trying to reduce their meat and/or fat intakes.
“Once I had my own space I could produce more so I took on another three markets. That was the quickest way to expand. We started out with minimal investment and have kept things bootstrapped. I have a couple of loans now, but nothing major.”
Smith has recently spent just over €10,000 to launch the retail version of his product. Sourcing packaging was a big headache as a limited budget meant the products had to fit into existing containers. “We have developed through organic growth always reinvesting profits, living on as little as possible and keeping debt low. You learn to become good friends with uncertainty, doubt and stress. Cash flow is always a battle, but we’ve been growing year on year and estimate sales of €350,000 in 2019.”
Smith studied business at college and worked in health insurance for five years before going travelling at the age of 29. He was bowled over by the food he tasted in Asia and South America and by the time he arrived back to Ireland in 2012 he knew his future lay in food. A cooking course with Cooks Academy followed and Smith, who is a long-time vegan, then spent time honing his cooking skills in two pillar restaurants of the vegetarian and wholefood community here, Cornucopia and The Happy Pear.
“Shoots and Roots produces tasty vegan food,” Smith says. “Everything we do is based on the principle of combining full-flavoured, plant-based ingredients that have been minimally compromised from a health point of view. We make three vegan burgers including butternut squash, aduki bean and coconut topped with different hummus options and a basil and cashew nut pesto.
“There is growing demand for vegan products and it’s not looking like it will slow down anytime soon,” he adds. “However, a lot of the options are highly processed, rely on wheat and soy protein and attempt to mimic the texture and flavour of meat. Our products highlight the joys and pleasures of eating whole ingredients without additives or preservatives.”
In 2018, Smith took part in the SuperValu Food Academy programme to prepare his product for a retail listing. “It was a massive learning curve and the last few months have been full on. I find growth periods painful as they stretch the business from all angles. We hope to expand the number of stores we’re supplying quite significantly in 2019 and we also have a number of leads in food service and would like to open our own retail outlet,” he says.