Fruit pies, steaming products in pipeline at ConAgra

by Eric Schroeder
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BOCA RATON, FLA. — ConAgra Foods, Inc. is setting its sights on developing products that are not easy to copy, have lasting power and deliver on value.

In a Feb. 16 presentation at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York meeting in Boca Raton, Gary Rodkin, chief executive officer of ConAgra, spoke extensively about the company’s innovation capabilities, describing ConAgra’s key innovation tenets as “fewer, bigger, better.”

“We expect our innovation to stick and grow beyond year one,” Mr. Rodkin said. “We’re about creating new insulated technology platforms, not easy to copy and highly differentiated from private label. We look to leverage external partners, which dramatically multiplies our internal capabilities. Price value is a critical part of marketplace success and that’s why we work backwards from price point as part of our innovation. This is all about delivering outstanding quality at a given price.”

Along these lines, Mr. Rodkin said ConAgra has a significant amount of innovation and renovation planned for its Banquet brand in fiscal 2011, including the launch of Banquet Fruit Pies. Currently in test marketing, the fruit pies mark ConAgra’s first foray into dessert. Mr. Rodkin described the item as “a great product at a great value that is off to a strong start.”

Also in the Banquet line, he said the company is transforming its family-serve entrees to improve margins and give ConAgra room to drive the segment.

Another product in test markets is a line of frozen vegetable-based entrees under the Lightlife brand.

“Early reads are positive and we believe this can open up an important segment adjacency for us,” Mr. Rodkin said. ConAgra acquired Lightlife Foods in 2000.

Three years after introducing its “steaming platform” with the launch of Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers, ConAgra continues to stay innovative in the category. Mr. Rodkin said the company is rolling out Healthy Choice Mediterranean Steamers and plans to launch another line of steaming products this summer. He said the product lines should help the company “grab a bigger piece of the very large lunch segment where we are underdeveloped.”

“The steaming platform has been a major factor in our success in the frozen meal category where we’ve grown our share more than two full points this fiscal year to date,” he said.

ConAgra used the basic steaming concept of upgrading food quality through packaging technology to create Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers in 2008 and Marie Callender’s Pasta Al Dente meals in 2009. The two brands are expected to deliver $65 million in net sales this year, and when combined with Chef Boyardee microwave meals give ConAgra the No. 1 position in shelf stable microwave meals, Mr. Rodkin said. He said the company plans to launch two product lines on the platform later this summer.

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