This is part of a new series at Food Dive of Q&A’s with iconoclasts in the industry doing interesting things and challenging the status quo in the food industry. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Samuel Dennigan grew up with agricultural crops in his own backyard in Northern Ireland. From the age of five, he was surrounded by the fresh produce market and learned the ins and outs of the agriculture industry working alongside his father. After attending art school in Belfast, the young professional had a unique outlook on the industry — one that combined art with food.
Creating his own brand, Strong Roots, Dennigan looks to bring the characteristics of fresh food — health and balance — to frozen meals.
After failing in his first entrepreneurial venture — Sam’s Potatoes — and then again with the General Mills’s Green Giant brand — Dennigan found his secret sauce.
Name: Samuel Dennigan
Where do you live: Lisbon, Portugal
Occupation: Founder and CEO of Strong Roots
FOOD DIVE: What was your first job?
DENNIGAN: My first proper job, before I got into the family business, was at an art gallery in Belfast during college. Before I entered into the food industry, I studied visual communications and fine art painting at the University of Ulster in Belfast. I was encouraged to try and get a part time job in the field, so I walked into our local gallery and got a job.
FOOD DIVE: What inspired you to focus on your current work?
DENNIGAN: I’ve always been obsessed with brands and logos — between the context behind them and what they mean to the consumer, the story they have to tell — and Strong Roots was the perfect marriage of my art and food background.
I had been working in the food industry for around 10 years, trying to create various different brands and had loads of failures. I created a microwavable potato brand called Sam’s Potatoes, and I licensed the Green Giant brand from General Mills to try and develop products in the Irish and U.K. market. Those both failed for various different reasons.
Strong Roots has been successful thanks to the lessons I learned from those failures. So it was really the joining of my love for building a brand, and my love for food that got me started.
FOOD DIVE: What is the biggest change you have seen while working your current role?
DENNIGAN: When I started my career in food I was in the fresh produce space, and at that time, fresh food was considered to be the most healthy. After years of research in the fresh versus frozen markets, I realized that there was no innovation for years, even decades, in the frozen category.
My team and I then started researching and developing products for the frozen category realizing that there was more room for disruption in the frozen category, over fresh.
I think the biggest change I’ve seen while at my role is that perception around health has shifted — not away from fresh — but to include other categories like frozen, snacking and ready to eat. There are other parts of the store that are now really healthy in comparison to what they were 10 or 15 years ago.
FOOD DIVE: What was harder than you thought it would be? What was easier?
DENNIGAN: I’ve now been the CEO of Strong Roots for eight years. I think sometimes there’s a perception in the world of startups that you’ve got a three-to-five-year track before someone comes in and buys your business, or that you can continually get huge amounts in investments, and then a peak, and then a trough.
One of the surprising things looking back on the past eight years is that things have never slowed down and it’s never dissipated in any capacity. I didn’t consider how long the intense pressure of a startup remains. What I didn’t consider was how long the intense pressure of a startup while you’re growing at a global branch remains. That’s one of the harder things — that idea of always being “on.”
When I think about the things that have been easier, on the other hand, it has been understanding the world of finance and investments. That area was one of my weaknesses when I started the company.
My mentor at the time used to tell me that if all of the other stuff was in really good shape, and I had a big addressable market and a unique product that was really good quality, then people would give me the money. So I’m not saying that funding was easier than I expected, but I think when you’ve built a solid business, the funding will come.
FOOD DIVE: What is a misconception that people have about you when they first meet you?
DENNIGAN: I think people confuse vegan and vegetarianism and flexitarianism with health and a balanced diet. I’m a big guy with a balanced diet, and I’m not vegan. I believe in a holistic diet where a bit of everything is good, as opposed to excluding different sources of nutrition. I think it’s certainly easier to take an all-or-nothing-approach when you have a vegan brand, for an explanatory behavior, but for me, the sourcing of how all the food on a plate got there is just as important.
FOOD DIVE: What do you think will be the biggest change in the industry in 10 years?
DENNIGAN: I think there will be a change in climate labeling, in that something that is now a practice in a minority of companies is going to soon be a regulatory requirement.
Something as simple as putting carbon values or carbon footprints on the front of packaging. I think it’s going to be just as, if not more, important than nutrition labeling. I can see in the next 10 years that it will become a legal requirement for companies to report on their carbon usage.
I think in addition to that becoming regulatory, I think it’s also going to shift consumer purchasing behavior to be driven by the environmental impacts of products, instead of just by price and taste.
FOOD DIVE: What do you wish someone would have told you about your current role or position when you started?
DENNIGAN: I had a lot of great mentorships when I started out, so I think I got the right advice. The problem is, now I don’t always listen to that advice because I’m caught in the routine of progress and growth.
A lot of the experiences that I had in the beginning of my career had a lot to do with my family. I had mentors who reminded me to carve out time for my family and to have an equal bias toward my work and personal life. I knew the importance of a healthy work-life balance early on in my career, but I would have wanted to get that advice if I hadn’t.
Another piece of advice I would have wanted was knowing when to call it. Ther’'s a lot of pride attached to being entrepreneurial, obviously not wanting to fail, but I suppose understanding when you have failed and calling it before it’s gone to a place that there’s no return from is really important.
FOOD DIVE: What would be the foods of your last meal?
DENNIGAN: Some sort of delicious poutine with our fries — or chips depending on where you are reading from — with gravy over top. Something that is really starchy and comforting and delicious.