Sam Dennigan is the 34 year old founder of Strong Roots, the UK’s fastest growing plant-based brand – currently expanding across the US, in already 5000 stores like Whole Foods and Erewhon and just recently rolled out products in over 2000 Walmart stores in September. Sam is interested in building a global brand, CEO, leadership and all things food – how Big Food has failed to innovate over the past 30 years and why consumers are coming back to the freezer aisle.
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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so excited and honored to have with us today, Sam Dennigan. He’s the founder and CEO of Strong Roots. If you don’t know what Strong Roots is, it’s the burgers that I eat at my house. Strong Roots makes these wonderful delicious burgers. We’re going to be talking about those and everything else Strong Roots makes and everything behind the company. But before we do that Sam, welcome to the Impact Podcast.
Sam Dennigan: Thank you so much for having me Great to be here. Nice to meet you, John.
John: Hey, great meeting you too. You’re sitting in beautiful New Jersey today. I’m in Fresno, California. Your roots are in Ireland and my roots are in New York. So, I guess technology allows us to connect and be more connected than ever before. And for that I’m grateful. Sam, before we get talking about your company, for any of our listeners or viewers who want to find your great company Strong Roots, they could go to www.strongroots.com. Tell us a little bit about the Sam Dennigan backstory. How did you even get here?
Sam: I grew up in food, John. I was lucky enough. My dad had inherited a company from his dad, my grandfather, and my namesake. So, ever since I was a child, I was in and around fresh produce, potatoes vegetables, salads. My excitement on a Saturday morning as a kid was going to work with my dad so that I could go out of the trucks with his drivers and do stops so that I could grab ice cream in there and their service station on the way.
John: That’s a lot of fun. How much fun is that? Those are great memories.
Sam: Yeah. I mean everything from as long as far back as I can remember has been about food. So, I initially had no interest in the family business. Through school, I have almost gone in a different direction. I was a designer. I was an artist. I wanted to go into advertising. Then once I got in to do that, it started pulling me back in. I think when you’ve got such strong roots in agriculture and food, and so many family members that make that business fun, you’re destined to get in there anyway. My family’s business is of the same name. It’s called Sam Dennigan and Company which is a large wholesale distribution food service supplier, kind of like a UNFI or a KeHE in North America.
John: Oh, really?
Sam: Yeah. I grew up in that business and I’ve worked in it for 10 years as a career before starting Strong Roots. So, I did everything from washing the floors to check in the orders, to running the IT department, to having lots of experience in operations and sales and marketing. Then eventually, I ended up discovering brands and food specifically and I matched off my creative ability from my very brief time in our college with this love and passion for telling the stories about agriculture. I grew up knowing about where things came from and I love telling the stories about it and adding value and interest to products. In fresh values, that’s quite difficult because it’s quite commoditized. But I wanted to find a way, and Strong Roots has been that way. After 10 years in the family business, I wanted to do something myself. I found a couple of opportunities and had done lots of travel globally, looking at different agriculture growing regions principally Spain, South America, North America, various different parts of Europe. Ireland is self-sufficient in the summer season, but in the winter season, everything is imported. All the fresh produce is imported from Europe and further afield. So, I used to have to try and figure out where it was coming from, where we were getting it, and how much we needed. So, my education from a very young age was just where food came from and I realized that that was what people needed to understand. They needed to understand about how they could get it, where they could get it from, but also how they could do it sustainably. That’s what’s led us to the foundation of Strong Roots and the journey that we’ve been on for the last 6 years.
John: So, a lot of that makes total sense in terms of your background, this wonderful produce name with your name on it, fruits and vegetables, national footprint. Where is the epiphany to say, I want to get involved with making plant-based foods? Given that you came out of that industry, but did you realize that you wanted to change the world and make the world a better place because plant-based eating is necessary just for all of us to feel better and to cut down on carbon emissions? Was it political? Was it emotional? Was it just strictly business? Oh my gosh. This opportunity is so much white space in plant-based eating. Where of all these different data points- when entrepreneurs put together data points and they come up with an epiphany and make a decision, where were you leaning the strongest towards when you came up with this great company, Strong Roots?
Sam: I was developing a brand in Ireland under a license from General Mills at the time, which is a brand that you’ll know well, which is Green Giant.
Sam: We had licensed the brand from the General Mills organization as a group of companies in Europe that we’re trying to bring Green Giant into fresh produce. It’s obviously been very successful in the US, and the US company who had the license of the brand wanted to bring it to Europe. I was tasked with trying to figure out from a research basis, is this something that our consumers want? This is all in fresh, remember. This has nothing to do with frozen plant-based food at this stage. But what I uncovered in probably early 2011, 2012 was ultimately this trend that has now become a huge part of our lives- vegetarianism, veganism, and plant-based eating on a mass conventional scale as opposed to something that had been quite niche for so many years before. My expertise is in agribusiness. It’s in crops. It’s in varietals. It’s understanding seasonality. What was very clear from a consumer point of view was that people didn’t want the standard vegetables that they had been served for the previous 20 years. And that was something that was consistent both from private label and from brands in the Irish market. When it came to things like carrots and cabbage and potatoes, people were sick of them and we coined this phrase during that piece of research while which was, what are the aspirational vegetables that people were interested in? One of the main emergers in Europe specifically at that time was sweet potato. Sweet potato has gone from being 0% of market share of potato in Europe to being almost 25 to 30%. today. It’s had a huge growth in Europe where it never existed before. That research phase just proves that this was bigger than any brand. It was an opportunity to get ahead of the curve in terms of what the consumer was expecting to see, what they were seeing on cooking shows, what they were seeing in cookbooks, what were chefs doing in restaurants. It was very much a conversion from the world of very, very premium quality, white linen service restaurant food into retail. How do we make the jump, and how do we make the jump at a price point that people will buy it on mass as opposed to just a tiny, tiny corner of the store?
So, during that period and the development of that project with the General Mills brand, I realized how big this opportunity was. But it wasn’t until 2015 when we changed tack from the fresh world into the frozen world. The reason that it was so important as a pivot in a shift from fresh to frozen is because fresh was able to innovate faster. Fresh was commoditized. Fresh could get to the market quicker. Whereas frozen had been undeveloped in Europe for 30 years. You had french fries and potatoes. You had meat that had been riddled in scandal from the hoarse meat crisis specifically in the UK in the early 90s, and then you had these beige products that were covered in breadcrumbs and gluten, and they were covering either chicken or beef or cheese and nothing in that category, nothing in the frozen world whatsoever was geared to a healthy lifestyle. Pizza ice cream, potatoes, french fries, etcetera. So, all we did was do the opposites of the market was doing. We were the first to do it in Ireland and we were one of the first to do it in the UK and that had snowballed into from this one piece of insight, from this relatively inexpensive piece of consumer research which was people don’t eat meat [inaudible] anymore. That was the epiphany of hold on, we’ve got something here. We got to move with it.
John: That’s so awesome. Hey, go back. I just want to ask you about sweet potatoes because I grew up eating sweet potatoes since my grandmother did it. It was a family thing. But different products- we’ve seen almonds and pistachios and pomegranates with POM Wonderful get their star treatment. Did the uptick from 0 to 30, 35% of sweet potatoes happen because of some unique advertising campaign or with the consumers’ tastes change or how did you guys go from 0 to 35 on sweet potato consumption in Europe?
Sam: I think to be fair, most of the industry would be accepting of the fact that the North Carolina sweet potato commission and the universities down there did an unbelievable marketing job for sweet potato not just in the US with the rise of brands like Alexia and lots of development in private label, but also in Europe. Those guys, they had a crop, they had government investment, they had the lower social demographic area that they wanted to put back to work and still do, and ultimately, they had to make use of the crop that they were famous for. I think they’re probably single-handedly responsible for the emergence of sweet potato into Europe and it’s just not slowing down. It was our first product which we actually made and produced in North Carolina and then exported back to Ireland. We were the first sweet potato fry brand in Ireland, the second in the UK, and we were laggards. Fresh have been a huge thing in Europe for years, but we were the first ones to make it a frozen french fry.
John: That’s wonderful of sweet potato fries are just, for me, the best. Just the best. Sam, Since I haven’t been to your beautiful country yet- and I intend to go either later this year or sometime next year- how was the trend of, obviously, now I understand your business model, your vision. Where was vegetarianism and veganism as a trend in Ireland at the time? Is there a huge population of vegetarianism and veganism, or is it now just slowly building?
Sam: You’ll know that Ireland is very famous for 3 things: its beef, its water mainly carry gold, and its dairy products. It’s the cornerstone of an export industry in Ireland so in short, there are much less vegans in Ireland at that stage, at the inception of the brand than there are now. It’s changing rapidly. It’s changing really quickly. We’ve gone from being non-existent to a very big part of the fabric of our Irish consumption and UK consumption in a very short space of time. But it’s really, really recent. You’re talking about the last 5 or 10 years emerging as a trend, and I would say it’s principally, reducetarian, flexitarian as opposed to from vegetarian or vegan. There’s obviously a very, very core central group of vegan consumers that have been in Ireland for years, but now it’s mainstream, and it’s only being mainstream for a relatively short amount of time.
John: If you just joined us, we’ve got Sam Dennigan. He’s the founder and CEO of Strong Roots. To find Sam, his colleagues, and his delicious products, please go to www.strongroots.com. I have 2 of the boxes of the products that I enjoy in my household. As my listeners and viewers know, I’m a vegetarian. I’m a vegan. Been a vegetarian for over 40 years. Vegan just about the last 12 or 13. These products, these burgers are just delicious. Simply delicious. How many products do you have now, Sam, approximately? You launched about 6 years ago. How many wonderful, delicious products do you have in the frozen section?
Sam: Across the group, we have about 15 unique products right now. Six of those are in the US with lots more coming soon. But yeah, we’ve got 15 roughly split between what we call potato or a notato, which is our are carb production area of products. We do delicious products like cauliflower hash browns, zucchini hash browns, sweet potato fries, and a mixed root vegetable fry made from delicious beets, carrots, and parsnips which are quite an unusual combination in North America but are doing really, really well here. And then from a meat alternative perspective, we have the two burgers that you’ve shown everybody, but also another burger and a whole appetizer range of bites ranging from spinach to pumpkins and sweet potato, all delicious. We’re a taste-first brand. Sometimes we leave things in there like gluten, although it’s being reduced more and more all the time to make sure that they taste great first.. Everything else comes after that.
John: Your products taste not great, they taste beyond great. They’re just delicious. You know, Sam, about that, we have listeners and viewers around the world. In the United States, obviously, we have a huge listener base in UK, in Ireland, and way beyond, in Asia as well. Where can our listeners and viewers find your great products now here in the United States, and in UK and Ireland? What kind of stores are carrying- I buy these at Whole Foods here in the United States. So, Whole Foods, I know is counted. Where else can our listeners and viewers find your great products?
Sam: Whole Foods is a national account for us, so you can find those products as well as for others in all of their stores in all of their locations. We’re also in approximately 2,000 Walmart stores, both coasts in the South of the Great Lakes as well. Not so many in the middle yet, but we’re working on it. And then on the both coasts in the specials[?] natural retailers, you’ll find them in Wegmans, in ShopRite, you’ll find it in Sprouts, you’ll find them in The Fresh Market, and really, really soon in the next few weeks, we’re going to be launching with Kroger across a lot of their banners as well in about just over 1,000 stores. We’ve been making tracks and they’re available for everyone across the country now.
John: You know, Sam given your background, you gave me a great data point because I know these companies well. My wife’s family is in the food business as well, generations speaking like yours was. Because your family owning Sam Dennigan and Company and being that it’s a UNFI or KeHE type of company in Ireland, and you understanding distribution, how much of an advantage for you the fact that you grew up in that industry, you worked there for 10 years, you understood distribution- For you to invent a great product is one thing because we know there are lots of wonderful entrepreneurs out there, inventing and creating wonderful, and tasty products in all different food sectors, even in the beverage sector. But getting it distributed is a whole different art and business model. How much of an advantage did you have because of your family history?
Sam: I think that’s a really good question. I think one of the leapfrog steps that we were able to make was we could have- we didn’t by the way- but we could have avoided setting up the stall at the farmers market to prove the concept. We did that because we wanted to engage with our customers, but we knew what worked and what didn’t work. I was very fortunate to grow up in a situation where there was a warehouse of brands that I could walk around, looking at where the big pallets[?] were and where the small pallets were and knowing that that’s working and that’s not working and those guys are in trouble. So, understanding from a first-person experience of what was happening was unbelievably invaluable because you knew not just of how to distribute a product, how to build a pallet. What kind of a case to put it in? How to make everything as easy as possible in the supply chain to move it around so that everyone’s job was easy. And I think those are the biggest pitfalls for start-up food companies. It’s about moving from, “I’ve got something delicious,” to, “I can distribute this nationally.” It’s one of my biggest points of mentorship when I’m speaking to young brands is don’t assume the start is the end. You’ve got to write the perfect picture of how this looks in a thousand stores to get them in a thousand stores. There are so many steps and hoops to jump through to get there. It’s phenomenal. We had a huge leg up for sure.
John: Because you speak of it so calmly. When I have friends or I made investments in the food and beverage space, they’re literally frantic about getting distribution and they don’t even understand- The political ecosystem that exists in that industry is so unique, and you’re so wise about and calm about it, and obviously, you’re succeeding in it. But others sometimes never find their place or find their audience because they just never understand how to break into it. So, it’s just fascinating what you’ve done. You’ve not only created delicious products but also because of your experience and your education, family and formal, you really have broken the code on distribution which is just, it’s just wonderful. Talk a little bit about, let’s go beyond taste. Talk about social and ecological benefits to being a plant-based eater or at least making part of- like you said, I think the days of ideological, I’m a vegetarian, I’m a vegan and God forbid I taste meat again ever, hell will freeze over. I think those days of ideological discussions are fading away. And as you say, people are learning to incorporate delicious products- and again shameless plug, but because I love these products, I’m allowed to shamelessly plug them. I think people are flexitarian, pescatarian, but they enjoy great plant-based eating. Talk a little bit about some of the great benefits that come along with shifting our diet to more plant-based eating, social, environmental, and ecological benefits that are just huge.
Sam: It’s kind of tiresome, but still relevant to need to explain on a regular basis that we need to consume less animals in order for the Improvement of personal on planet health. There are no two ways about it. And for me, who follows a balanced, Mediterranean lifestyle and diet more so than any end of the spectrum, for me, it’s about understanding how to create a demand as a result of easier access. So, our objective as a brand is to be a gateway for non plant-based eaters to eat plant-based foods without a huge amount of education. How do you make it easier for people to access things without ramming it down their throats and without making them feel guilty about things at the same time? Let’s bring people to the water as opposed to pushing them in the pool. So, for us, we have been led there by the consumer. You’re asking a question about what was the initial spark, what was the epiphany? For me, it was a better knowledge of business and something that could be done better, and a story that could be told better to connect with consumers. I’m a storyteller and I’m a marketer at heart and I want people to understand the truth about the food industry and the tiny, tiny changes that they can make in their day-to-day diet to make overall huge improvements in consumption and planetary and personal health. So, for us, it’s taking a specialty of the knowledge of food and sharing that. Frozen is the best way of eating seasonally, eating out of season, so that things don’t have to be shipped across the world in 5 days so that everyone can have a ripe cherry tomato that never came from anywhere close to their front doorstep. Our objective is to not only educate people about eating more vegetables, which is what our goal is, but also that it can be tasty without any, all-natural ingredients. This is convenience and taste without overcomplicating things or without putting products and ingredients in there that are for elongation of life or necessary. Frozen is a natural preservation method, which means that everyone can eat healthy and sustainably at all times without hazarding a thought. You know, I have this line that that rings very true for people quite often which is, you should be able to look at the front of the pack and understand and trust a brand that is doing the right thing without having to look at what’s in it at the back. We need to move to a situation where trusting a product because of the efforts of the brand, be they sustainable or educative or trying to disrupt a culture of consumption for better human health is there without having to look into what’s the real motive here? Who owns this company and so on and so forth. So, for us, we’ve always been a company who wanted to do good in addition to a company who wants to make profit. We have recently become a B Corp, and to be honest, it was really just a registration of something that we were already doing. We set out as a company and a group of, 40 people now who feel that we have a privilege as a business who’s succeeded, that we can’t just sit on our hands and not do anything about the communication of better health. So, B Corp was I suppose, an illustration of how we could join the club of other people who are doing it, but we’ve always done better business in recycling our water waste, using our vegetable waste to create bio gas to power the turbines that create the electricity for some of the plants that we run using regenerative agriculture. And most importantly, looking after the mental health of our people, while we push them to work so hard to do all of this that we’re looking after them at the other side as well. So, they’re just things that are part of the Strong Roots fabric and culture. But I think we’re- I was delighted to see on LinkedIn somewhere today that there is now 4000 B Corp companies. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s still a tiny tiny amount in comparison to the amount of businesses in the world.
John: For our listeners and viewers, Sam, can you walk them through what being a B Corp company really means? Because not most people understand it.
Sam: Yeah. The easiest way to explain B Corp is the idea of a triple bottom line. It’s about planet, people, and profit, and not just one of those things. So, making sure that while you’re doing business, you’re doing good at the same time. There’s no reason that companies especially food companies could be in any way meaningfully doing harm to either society, or planet, or personal health. So, B Corp company is being a part of an organization that has a collective. It’s trying to do better business by simply acknowledging that when we think about making profits, we have to think about the planet and we have to think about our people and the people in society at the same time.
John: You started your company in Dublin. You still have your headquarters there. You’re in New Jersey right now. Explain a little bit about Dublin as a startup community. I know a lot about San Diego. I know a lot about Boston and the Cambridge area and Silicon Alley in New York, Silicon Valley in California, Seattle, and in the Pacific Northwest. What’s Dublin like? Is it a great area to start a startup like yours and create a whole new industry?
Sam: Absolutely. Dublin’s awesome not just because I lived and grew up there, but Dublin has become an incubator for some of the best and most Innovative businesses in the world. There’s a lot of food businesses that have become famous on the island and off the island, but it’s particularly known for tech. It’s a really, really driven tech hub. There are some great incubator programs. One in particular is called Dogpatch, which is, which is run by various different organizations in collaboration with the government and has been hugely subscribed over the years. Things like web so much have been founded in Dublin, which is one of the central points there at the Silicon Valley Community as a central place of innovation, in addition to the fact that there are some of the biggest food companies in the world that are based in and around the island of Ireland. But the best thing about Dublin is that the camaraderie in people. It’s a place where people want good business to be done, but people love having fun at the same time. That is the key mix of things to understand when thinking about Dublin. I’m hoping you will experience that when you go there.
John: I will. I’m so excited. Trust me. Was the industry shocked because your family brand is such a big name in you’re of course named after the namesake brand? Was it a little bit shocked? You could have taken the easy way in life, and nothing’s easy. And I don’t want to degrade generational family members that go into their family business. No such thing as easy. But you could have had a nice position that is set for you with your name on the family brand and just stayed there and made a very great living I’m sure and done really good by selling delicious fruits and vegetables and produce throughout Ireland. But you took the different route, You took the road less traveled. You found a new mountain to climb. Was the industry shocked? Was your local community and family and friends shocked? Were you always the guy they knew would just going to go do something different one day?
Sam: No, I certainly wasn’t naturally entrepreneurial. I felt I had a privilege through the education that I had grown up in to go and do something more and that there was this huge opportunity that I wanted to create a global brand. And therefore, a clean break and fresh runway was the way to do that. Yeah, of course, family’s shocked, customers and industry shocked for sure for a very, very short time, but then as soon as we launched, I think the pieces got together for everybody. It’s a very small community both in food and in Ireland. Food globally, Ireland locally. I’m still doing what I did for 10 years through the family business, just in a different way. For me, I think it is about using the knowledge that you’ve got to the best advantage because so many people don’t get the opportunity to do it.
John: How many countries do you sell in now, Sam?
Sam: I’m sure I’ll get this wrong because it’s getting bigger by the day, but I think we’re available in about 15 countries today. Ireland, the UK, and the USA being our home markets where we’ve set up shop and have local operations. We also sell in far places like Iceland, we sell in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Singapore, most recently in Belgium and the Netherlands, and soon-to-be in Australia and Canada. So, the footprint is growing by the day. And yeah, it’s great to see. We’re realizing our dream which is awesome.
John: Sam. You’re a young, young man, and you’ve already accomplished a lot. Give me your vision of the next 5 years. Where do you want to take Strong Roots, and where can it go?
Sam: We set up to create a global brand and that’s what we’re doing, but we’re far from being there yet. So, when I think about how we can tell the story about sustainability and plant-based consumption and making it easier to access foods that are both affordable and tasty at the same time, our goal over the next kind of 3 to 5 years is to make our products available for about 10% of the global population. So, we want to exist in territories and have enough distribution to be able to achieve that. I mean, ultimately, we believe that we’re the Birds Eye or McCain’s of the next generation. Those foods were our foods. Those foods were our parents’ foods. And what we’re trying to do with Strong Roots in a sustainable growth pattern is to be able to build a brand that people trust without the palaver or showmanship and something that’s really bettered in something real. So, that’s the goal. So we’ve got a steep mountain to continue to climb but the team are up for it so I’m very confident.
John: I have no doubt that when I have you back on this show, you’re going to be up that mountain and getting closer to the top because [inaudible].
Sam: That’s awesome. That’s awesome.
John: Oh, and you have a great brand. I’m so excited about it because we’ve moved away just from plant-based burgers, which of course, like I said, I love but I have a 1-year-old granddaughter, my first granddaughter, grandchild, and getting her on your spinach bites and cauliflower bites and red and sweet potato fries, she loved that stuff, never even know what the other stuff existed out in this world. And once she’s on your stuff as a young kid, that will set patterns of good eating, set her up for a life of success of good eating habits. That’s why I’m so excited to have you on today and to share your journey, to share your story. It’s so important for people to try your brand. You don’t have to be 100% vegetarian. You don’t have to be 100% vegan, but you got to try Strong Roots. All their great products are so delicious, and they’re also good for you. They’re good for the environment. They’re good for the community you live in. Sam Dennigan, you’re always welcome back on this show. Thank you for the great food that you make at Strong Roots. For our listeners, go to www.strongroots.com to find Sam and his colleagues. You’re always welcome back on the Impact Show. You make the world a better place. Thank you for being what you are and making such a great brand of food brand for all of us to enjoy.
Sam: John., thanks for having me. This has been awesome. An absolute pleasure to meet you.
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