Plant-Based Strong Roots Grows U.S. Presence With Kroger Distribution Deal

Samuel Dennigan spent 10 years at his family’s Ireland-based fresh produce business, a decade that helped him develop the roots and connections he needed to branch out on his own.

In 2015, Dennigan launched Strong Roots with a line of sweet potato fries, a product that had existed for a long time in the U.S. but had only just been introduced in Ireland and the U.K. It took off quickly there with consumers seeking a healthier version of their familiar white potato fries, and today the company has a roster of 15 products, all vegan, that are sold at retail outlets in Britain, Ireland and, most recently, the U.S.

Strong Roots brought its products to the U.S. in the midst of the pandemic last year and today they are available at about 9,000 stores operated by retailers including Walmart and Whole Foods Market, and in the coming weeks they’ll roll out to about 1,000 Kroger-owned supermarkets, Dennigan said.

But the story started with getting to know the growers and gaining an appreciation for the potential of turning simple vegetables into new products. 

“[The family business] was where I cut my teeth on agriculture and food and gained an understanding of the supply chain,” Dennigan said.

The gig provided Dennigan with insights about plant-based food and a vision of ways to make a difference and make his mark in the frozen food industry. The network of suppliers and retailers he had formed along the way let him hit the ground running and start building a company that now employs 40 people in three countries, he said. 

Dennigan’s decision to leave the family business and strike out on his own instead of staying and creating a new division within the existing company stemmed from his desire to do something completely different and disruptive, he said. 

“I wanted to be able to take risks without the background of the family business. I came from the fresh produce world, from commodities. What we wanted to do was connect with the consumer on a deeper level.”

The B2B commodity industry was seasonal and price sensitive, Dennigan said.

“We needed a better platform to tell our stories and one that was more sustainable as well. There was only ever one route that made sense to me — the frozen supply chain.”

Strong Roots does all its production with contract manufacturers, a plan that lets the corporate staff focus on sales and marketing and also allows the company to locate manufacturing close to the local growers and suppliers it contracts with, he said.

“We try to manufacture closest to our market but also closest to where the best growing regions are,” he said. “One of our best growers is based in North Carolina, so when we were breaking into Ireland and the U.K., we were able to export from the U.S.”

From the start, Strong Roots has focused on creating tasty, familiar products made simply with vegetables, seasonings and few other ingredients. The available products differ a bit depending on the market. One of the most popular items in the U.S. thus far has been the Cauliflower Hash Browns, which are made with potatoes, cauliflower, onions and six other ingredients including salt and pepper.

Launching During A Pandemic

Strong Roots’ first big U.S. rollout came at Whole Foods during the first month of the pandemic last year, just as consumers were panic buying everything at the grocery store, Dennigan said. 

“Initially we saw those crazy spikes in demand that everyone in retail saw. Then, through the summer, as people got more confident in going outside, it calmed down, but the growth in the base was still more than we expected,” he said.

Growth for plant-based foods in particular soared last year. U.S. retail sales were up 27% to $7 billion in 2020 from the previous year, nearly double the growth rate of the total U.S. retail food market, according to data compiled by the Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute. 

After Whole Foods came Walmart, then smaller natural food store chains including Sprouts and Wegmans. 

Like many food makers on a mission to raise brand awareness and introduce new products in new markets, Strong Roots would have spent much of the marketing budget on sampling and in-store demos — until the pandemic made that impossible.

The company shifted its spending to digital marketing and also partnered with Ghost Truck Kitchen in New York City and Jersey City, N.J., which allowed it to introduce the product to consumers as part of a quickserve menu offered through third-party delivery services.

Relationships with Amazon-owned Whole Foods and Walmart also helped the brand connect with consumers who were increasingly looking to those retailers’ sites for online ordering and home delivery.

“We do well with Amazon Fresh, Fresh Direct and Walmart delivery,” he said. “They’ve been a huge successful us during COVID and now the consumer is used to buying us online.”

The company, which raised $18.3 million in a 2019 funding round led by Goode Partners, reported a 150% increase in sales in the first two months of 2021 over the same period last year and it expects annual sales to hit $100 million by the end of 2023. 

Dennigan’s roots may be in Dublin but these days he’s following the business to each new market. After a brief time in London, he’s settled in Jersey City for now while the U.S. arm of the company is in growth mode.

One new product in the U.K. could be the inspiration for the next branch on Strong Roots’ business, Dennigan says. The company has launched The Veg Finger, a plant-based alternative to fish fingers — what Americans know as fish sticks — and their popularity could inspire further innovation in meat and seafood alternatives in the future. 

“Some of our retailers are asking us to bring them to the U.S., and what would follow that could be other fortified meat alternatives,” he said.

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