Irish frozen food brand Strong Roots launching stateside: 'The US has the potential to be our biggest market'

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: Strong Roots
Photo: Strong Roots

Related tags: Frozen food, Plant-based foods

Emerging brands in the plant-based frozen food space are plentiful, but not many have proven their value in international markets as Strong Roots has in the UK and its home base of Ireland.

Founder Sam Dennigan launched Strong Roots in Ireland in 2015, and  the brand is now stocked in virtually every grocery store in Ireland and 4,000 UK stores. Dennigan, who started Strong Roots funded by his entire life savings, has grown the company to 20 employees and generated €20m over a three-year-period. 

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Before launching Strong Roots in 2015, 33-year-old Sam Dennigan worked for his family's produce business in Ireland for a number of years.

“Strong Roots came out of changes I saw in customers’ tastes, and opportunities I saw in how modern production methods could create higher-quality frozen produce,”​ Dennigan said. 

From the get-go, Dennigan has always been hyper-focused on the needs of the consumers, which seems like an obvious strategy for a newer food brand, but something legacy frozen food brands have lost sight of in recent years leading to years of stagnant to declining sales, he said. 

The frozen food category is recovering, however, with +2.6% dollar growth in 2018 driven by better-for-you brands and plant-based options, according to a report by the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). Giants in the freezer aisle such as Conagra Brands-- which acquired Pinnacle Foods​ ​for $10.9bn last year -- have been increasingly innovating their portfolios to better compete in the frozen food space. 

Commenting on the mega-acquisition of two industry giants, Euromonitor research analyst Dewey Warner previously told this publication: "This has to do with frozen food companies finally coming around to some self-reflection and altering the products they have relied on for so long in order to better meet consumers where they currently are."

Dennigan emphasized that he doesn't want Strong Roots to be seen as just another food company churning out products for the masses, however. 

"We’re not a manufacturer, we’re a food marketing company, so if we’re not producing what the consumer wants, then what’s the point?"​ Dennigan told FoodNavigator-USA at the Natural Products Expo West Show last week.

"We’re designing products for people, not industries, that’s our only job. So we spend a ton of money on market research to make sure we’re continually answering questions on what the consumer wants."

Dennigan, who studied art and graphic design in college, spent a lot of time getting the branding right. The packaging features a bold typeface against a white backdrop with a bold zig-zag pattern (meant to represent tractor marks) across the front and back of the pack.

"We spend so much time and effort on the brand​ [and packaging], it’s the first point at which the consumer starts interacting with your product,"​ he said. 

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Strong Roots kale & quinoa burger

The core consumer

Similar to other veggie-based frozen food companies, the bulk of Strong Roots' customer base isn't solely vegetarians or vegans, added Dennigan. 

"We don’t want to scare anyone off with a plant-based agenda. Our biggest consumer is the flexitarian who switches for health reasons a number of times a week," ​said Dennigan.

Strong Roots' vegetable-based portfolio includes: spinach bites, cauliflower hashbrowns, broccoli and purple carrot bites, a pumpkin & spinach burger, a beetroot & bean burger, and its kale & quinoa burger (which took home the Expo West NEXTY Award for 'Best New Meat Alternative').

One product that won't be available in US stores is the sweet potato fries, Dennigan clarified.

"The sweet potato is the only product that we’re not bringing to the US, because it’s a commodity here. As a new brand launching in a new territory, we really didn’t want to confuse the consumer around the premiumization of our product,"​ he said. 

"We want to do sweet potatoes here, but we want to establish ourselves here first."

'Our original goal was to become a UK household name'

According to Dennigan, that unlike the UK where frozen food is viewed in a harsher light by consumers, the US market is much more open to innovation within frozen food. In a recent report, AFFI and FMI found that the percentage of shoppers consuming frozen as part of an in-home meal increased from 1.6% in 1998 to 2.7% in 2018. 

"Our original goal was to become a UK household name, and then we realized the more we started looking at the US market, the more opportunities that seemed to present themselves,"​ he said. 

Dennigan has been making the trans-Atlantic trek from its headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, to the US visiting its manufacturing plant in North Carolina.

"I’ve becoming here for five years, in preparation for starting the business,"​ he said. 

Strong Roots' brand debut in the US was at the NFRA (National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association) Convention last October, where retailer reception was very positive, according to Dennigan.

"It has the potential to be our biggest market, but Ireland will always be our HQ,"​ he said. 

The company will be launching into thousands of US stores and announcing its major retailer distribution partnerships soon, added Dennigan. 

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