CHICAGO — The science of snacking may take a bold step forward with Conagra's announced plans to build a new 40,000-square-foot innovation center across from its Merchandise Mart headquarters in Chicago.
Slated to open next year in the former Apparel Center, the state-of-the-art facility will focus exclusively on advances in snacking, where a team of researchers will push the envelope on food and packaging breakthroughs to enable rapid development of "contemporary, on-trend" products, the company said Wednesday.
The goal? Develop the next Slim Jim or Boomchickapop to sate changing and generally healthier consumer cravings, while keeping Conagra on the cutting edge of snacking.
"We plan on creating, designing new foods and experiences in snacks that people are not experiencing today," said Corey Berends, senior vice president of research and development for Conagra Brands.
The Conagra Brands Center for Food Design is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2020, housing a staff of up to 50 employees, including food and packaging designers, as well as members of the company's culinary team. About half of the staff will be new hires, Berends said.
Conagra has about 550 employees at its Merchandise Mart headquarters.
Snack foods are a $43 billion industry in the U.S., with healthier products and more innovative flavors boosting growth, according to a June research report by IBISWorld. The segment is also a growing part of Conagra's business, bolstered by several recent "healthier" snack food acquisitions.
In 2017, Conagra bought Angie's Boomchickapop, Duke's meat snacks and Bigs seeds, all of which are considered to be on the healthier end of the snacking spectrum. Creating a Chicago research and development facility is a way to ensure their continued growth, Berends said.
Last year, snacks represented $2 billion in sales for Conagra. Some of the more iconic brands in the food giant's snacking portfolio include Slim Jim, Jiffy Pop, Swiss Miss and Fiddle Faddle.
But with millennials driving future growth, trends shaping the industry include everything from smaller portions and green manufacturing processes to sustainable packaging, according to a recent report by IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. For many, the snacks also have to fit with an overall healthier diet.
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The products still need to satisfy a case of the munchies, with the average consumer snacking nearly three times a day, according to IRI. Not surprisingly, the fastest growing segment of snacks fall under the banner of "permissible indulgence."
"You want something that looks and tastes great, but I don't want to blow my entire diet," Berends said.
An example of permissible indulgence in the Conagra pipeline is an as-yet-unnamed refrigerated pudding from Duncan Hines set to launch shortly. Think frosted yellow cake in a cup.
"It's in a small format, so it's low calories, but the experience is terrific," Berends said. "When you spoon it down, you've got a cakelike yellow texture at the bottom, while the top might be more of a frosting-type texture. It's something that's not in pudding today."
One of the largest packaged food conglomerates in North America with $9.5 billion in annual sales, Conagra started in 1919 as Nebraska Consolidated Mills. Renamed Conagra in 1971, the company built its portfolio through acquisitions, with signature brands including Marie Callender's, Healthy Choice, Hebrew National, Orville Redenbacher's, Hunt's and Peter Pan.
In 2016, Conagra Foods moved its corporate headquarters from Omaha, Neb., to Chicago's Merchandise Mart. One of Conagra's first acquisitions after relocating was Frontera Foods, the Chicago-based gourmet Mexican food company started by chef Rick Bayless.
The company maintains a research and development facility in Omaha, which is focused primarily on frozen food, Berends said.
While the Chicago innovation center will look to stay on top on consumer snacking trends, old standbys like Slim Jim still have a place in Conagra's snacking portfolio, Berends said.
"Health and wellness are important, but taste is still going to win," Berends said.