2013 Processor of the Year: ConAgra R&D Does It All

Retail, commercial, some ingredients, and now private label, the product development team is busy and varied.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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ConAgra Foods ProductsConAgra Foods' brands and products are found in 99 percent of American homes. Twenty-five of them are ranked first or second in their category. They range from familiar and mainstream brands such as Banquet frozen dinners and Hunt's ketchup to the nichey ones like Slim Jim meat snacks and Pam cooking sprays.

With more than 40 brands in a dozen or so categories plus businesses in consumer foods and commercial foods, the 2012 ConAgra was complex enough for any product development organization. The 2013 version of ConAgra has gotten more interesting with the addition of $4.3 billion in products from Ralcorp. While ConAgra all along had a store brands business, becoming North America's largest private labeler overnight will bring that category's unique challenges to the Research, Quality and Innovation (RQI) team.

Up to the challenge is the RQI team. As the name implies, that team encompasses a lot, more than just product development. Research & development, quality, packaging, nutrition, even sustainability are on the team headed by Executive Vice President Al Bolles.

"We organized around innovation and quality. We do research, but it's got to be solving a need," says Bolles, who's speaking of pure research, since his Ph.D. is in food science. "We exist to drive the business; the business isn't here to fund our science projects." So the RQI name came naturally.

Bolles brought in some new people, and others got new titles until he had assembled the team he wanted. "It's all about getting people focused on the consumer and targeting key customers," he says.

All products start with great taste. "We engage our culinary team to create the prototypes. Then it's up to the scientists, process engineers and packaging teams to bring the prototypes to life in our facilities and to the consumer shelf," Bolles says.

Orville PopUp Bowl

ConAgra's RQI team was the large-size company winner in our June 2012 R&D Teams of the Year competition (it's a popular vote by our readers and website visitors). At that time, Bolles told us there was no standard timeline for coming up with a new product, from concept to production. "That really depends," he reflected. "The [Orville Redenbacher's] Pop Up Bowl took almost two years because it was such a difficult technology...the bowl to pop up and open every time. That was technologically a tough one, getting it to run in our facilities while minimizing the amount of capital we needed. On the other hand, when it comes to new bar development … we can go from A to B faster, in some cases in six months."

Bolles says there are three important attributes for new products: taste, convenience and packaging innovation. But the company also is mindful of value.

"We've launched a few products that were too premium for the marketplace or not right for a particular customer. Now, we build the price point [into the process]. In today's economy it's very important to do that. We have found that consumers are somewhat less willing to try new things because of higher price points," he says.

"It's important to provide value to the consumer," he continues. "I'm really proud of how good our less expensive products are. Our Banquet line retails for $1 to $1.25. Where can you get a good meal for that? We work in close partnership with our supply chain to make the entire process as efficient as we can and are able to pass those savings on to consumers."

Research & development

One of those team members who got a new title was Corey Berends, vice president of research & development. He had been VP of product development just for frozen, grocery and refrigerated groups.

Culture is a big deal, he confirms. "We started doing things a different way," he says. "We created space for people to have ideas, to get inspired and collaborate. We put marketing and product development people together. We got input from the consumer insight folks, packaging and graphic design, too. We encouraged experimentation and rapid prototyping.

"We started doing in-home focus groups, dinner parties, really, at consumers' homes. It showed us how they cooked and ate, what they thought of our food. We learned a lot," Berends says.

Now the Ralcorp R&D organization is under his wing, too. While Ralcorp undoubtedly knows a thing or two about private label product development, "We're bringing our innovation philosophy for them to emulate," says Berends. "Ralcorp had speed and flexibility in their customer-driven organization. This expertise will help us provide additional solutions and value to customers in both our private brand and branded portfolio."

While the core of R&D is in Building 6 of the ConAgra headquarters in Omaha, some R&D people work in buildings in Downers Grove and Naperville, Ill., as well as St. Louis. Lamb Weston, ConAgra's all-potato, mostly foodservice division, has its R&D center in Richland, Wash.

Berends lists among the most innovative products of the past year:

  • Healthy Choice Greek Frozen YogurtHealthy Choice Frozen Greek Yogurt – "Other products in this category are chalky or get freezer burn. We came up with a technology that enables delivery of creaminess with that higher protein level," says Berends.
  • Bertolli and P.F. Chang's – These two product lines were bought from Unilever last year. ConAgra's first self-developed product in the lines are single-serve meals – which, incidentally, use a new tray that creates more even and thorough heating – more on that later.
  • Bertolli Desserts – It seemed like a natural extension for that upscale Italian product line. ConAgra partnered with a company in Italy to develop and create authentically Italian desserts (tiramisu, lemoncello, strata cakes). The frozen products also are manufactured in Italy.

In 2011, the R&D team won two 2011 Edison Innovation Awards, given each year to the country's most innovative new products. Healthy Choice Top Chef Café Steamers came in first and Marie Callender's Bakes came in fourth. Healthy Choice Baked Entrees was voted Frozen Product of the Year in 2012 by readers of Parade magazine.

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