- Conagra Brands is expanding its current R&D facilities with a new 40,000 square-foot innovation space in Chicago. The Conagra Brands Center for Food Design will focus on innovation in snacking.
- The Chicago facility will open in the first quarter of 2020 and employ 50 people, including food and packaging designers and members of the culinary team.
- The remainder of the company's innovation team for frozen, refrigerated, shelf-stable meals and condiments will remain at The Center for Food Design and Technology in Omaha, Nebraska.
Chicago is quickly becoming the new hub for all things CPG. Conagra recognized the Windy City’s potential in 2015 when it moved from its Omaha, Nebraska headquarters, cutting 1,000 jobs there and moving 300 workers to its then-new Chicago headquarters.
Since then, its investment into establishing its presence in Chicago has only deepened. Before announcing this center's establishment, Conagra partnered with food and beverage incubator The Hatchery in 2017, well before the innovation center's grand opening this April. Chicago Chef Rick Bayless, who sold his Mexican food brand Frontera to Conagra in 2016, has a restaurant academy at the incubator.
As Conagra joins the ranks of other CPG giants looking for growth through innovation, it has turned to snacks. Conagra has used M&A to enhance its snacking portfolio.
In 2017, Conagra spent $250 million to purchase Angie's Boomchickapop, a maker of ready-to-eat popcorn that uses simple ingredients. The same year, it also acquired Thanasi Food, the manufacturer of Duke's meat snacks brand and Bigs sunflower seeds.
Under Conagra, both brands have seen exponential growth. According to the company's most recent earnings report, net sales across the company grew 20.2% in FY 2019. CEO Sean Connolly said in a statement the "strong consumption trends in our frozen and snacks businesses demonstrated the strength of our innovation."
With such a lucrative precedent, it's no surprise that Conagra would continue to invest heavily in the snacking segment, which is growing overall and is now worth about $33 billion in the U.S. But Conagra is not the only company to have a snack innovation center in Chicago or put more resources into snack R&D. Mondelez's SnackFutures — also located in Chicago — is an innovation and venture segment of the company. It's currently working with three brands through investments and partnerships.
Although it is a competitive area of the country to enter a increasingly saturated market, Conagra is taking advantage of the social capital and the concentration of snack-minded entrepreneurs in Chicago. But it will also likely be leaving behind some staff in Nebraska.
There was no mention if the positions related to snacking innovation in Omaha would be transferred, but the company has cut jobs to consolidate satellite campuses and bring employees closer to its headquarters. It would not be surprising if staffing needs at this new facility were reduced, or if this became the first step in transferring the full innovation center to Chicago in the future.