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

Dec. 4, 2013
Retail, commercial, some ingredients, and now private label, the product development team is busy and varied.
ConAgra 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.

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 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.

    Packaging too

    As Berends pointed out, one of the things that makes the single-serve Bertolli and P.F. Chang's dinners novel is the MicroRite tray, developed in conjunction with tray supplier Graphic Packaging. "It's got both shielding and receptors; it directs heat where we want it and controls the energy elsewhere," explains Rob Weick, vice president of packaging.  Packaging, too, is part of RQI.

    The structure also is used in Marie Callender pot pies and Healthy Choice Bakes. "It also allows one-step cooking. The consumer doesn't have to cook, peel a lid, stir, replace the lidding and repeat the process," he adds.

    "My job is to develop new structures to create an outstanding consumer experience," he explains. That usually follows four goals:

    • Extreme convenience for the consumer – In addition to the MicroRite tray, Weick points to the Orville Redenbacher Pop Up Bowl and Healthy Choice Café Steamers, the latter of which uses tray-in-tray steaming technology to separate sauce from frozen ingredients, using steam to cook the meal. They won a number of packaging awards in 2008-2010.
    • Excellence in execution – "Perfect to shelf quality," as Weick puts it, "with appropriate thinking to meet the needs of both the customer and consumer." The concept includes ease of case opening, shelf loading and right sizing to meet the needs of our customer shelving systems.
    • Delivering customer needs – Again, designing the package to better meet the changing merchandising needs of retailers of all types.
    • Speed to market – "Finding new ways of doing our work that result in greater impact and efficiency to both our company and our customers [and] improving our ability to meet the needs of an ever-faster-changing consumer base."

    An eye on nutrition

    All this development work on products and packaging might be for naught if they didn't have the underpinnings of nutrition. Keeping an eye on that factor is Vice President Mark Andon.

    "We just met our corporate goal of a 20 reduction in sodium," he announces. Products leading that charge were Hunt's tomatoes (a 40 percent reduction), Chef Boyardee canned pastas (35 percent reduction), Kid Cuisine frozen meals (35 percent reduction) and Orville Redenbacher popcorn (25 percent reduction).

    Andon pursues four culinary techniques for sodium reduction:

    • Simple removal – "That works quite well for some products, such as Hunt's tomato products," he says.
    • Salt replacers – Potassium chloride and some other substitutes are used; both helped in the sodium reductions in Kid Cuisine and Chef Boyardee products.
    • Sea salt – It has more "saltiness" per milligram of sodium, so it also plays a role in in Kid Cuisine and Chef Boyardee.
    • Patented technologies – One example is Micron Salt, for which ConAgra Foods holds a patent. It's finely ground salt, just 1/500th the size of a normal salt crystal, but only works on products with a salty surface, such as Orville Redenbacher popcorn.

    Andon's group also has initiatives to add whole grains, control portions and calories, create dietary variety (promoting under-consumed foods, such as grains and nuts) and promote heart health.

    Andon believes he has proof ConAgra is succeeding in nutrition. He points to a 2012 survey by Health Focus International in which survey respondents rated ConAgra the best food processor at providing healthy food choices and that same year an award from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association).

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