BOSTON — Bringing the Banquet brand into the modern era required revamped packaging, updated recipes and reduced trade promotion, said Sean M. Connolly, president and chief executive officer of Conagra Brands, Inc. New offerings include buffalo-style chicken mac ‘n cheese because, Mr. Connolly said, “a millennial does not know what a Salisbury steak is.”
It is one of many changes under way to improve Chicago-based Conagra Brands’ frozen foods performance, a $2.9 billion business that includes such brands as Marie Callender’s, Healthy Choice and P.F. Chang’s.
|Sean Connolly, president and c.e.o. of Conagra Brands|
Conagra is the third largest frozen producer in North America, and single-serve meals represent the biggest part of the business, Mr. Connolly said.
“What I love about our frozen portfolio is we have highly differentiated brands that compete to very different need states within the frozen space,” Mr. Connolly said during a Sept. 5 presentation at the Barclays Global Consumer Staples Conference in Boston.
In the past year, retail sales of Conagra’s frozen single-serve meals fell 2.5%, according to data from Information Resources, Inc., Chicago. But recent efforts are taking hold. Sales in the past 13 weeks increased 4.8%, and sales in the past 5 weeks advanced 7.8%, Mr. Connolly said.
“This is what happens when you take iconic brands and you incorporate modern food attributes,” Mr. Connolly said. “And by the way, we feel good about it because our sell-in has gotten better than expected, and the incrementality we’re seeing to the category in the early days is better than we thought it would be. Early days, but we’ll see.”
A recent addition to the Healthy Choice product line is the Power Bowls range, featuring globally inspired flavors and recognizable ingredients packaged in a proprietary plant-based serving bowl.
“Why does that matter? Because some consumers don’t want to put plastic in a microwave so we’ve got this fantastic new bowl that avoids that barrier to purchase,” Mr. Connolly said.
New from Marie Callender’s is a product line called Marie Callender’s Delights, which Mr. Connolly described as “comfort with a conscience.”
“What we do here is smart swaps, so we’ll take a turkey meatball instead of a beef meatball,” he said. “We take sweet potato fries instead of mashed potato and gravy. Still very comforting, but it gives access to those consumers with particular constraints.”
The company also is expanding in the “premium multiethnic cuisine” segment, Mr. Connolly said.
“We’ve had Bertolli’s and P.F. Chang’s, we have a whole slate of new stuff coming there,” he said. “But the new one is Frontera because we had a gap in Mexican, and we bought this business, which is a terrific salsa and sauce business, and quickly realized we can take it into frozen. We’ve got these phenomenal new products coming out that we built with Chef Bayless who founded this company. They’re multi-serve, they’re single-serve, and they’re absolutely terrific.
“And this is our record for speed to market. In the old days, this would take us 1.5 years. This product took us a matter of months, so you get a sense of agility that you’re starting to see at Conagra.”
Beyond product renovation and innovation, Conagra Brands is rebalancing its frozen portfolio to “have less reliance on value with Banquet,” Mr. Connolly said.
“We’re rightsizing Banquet, and we’re infusing growth into premium and mainstream with Healthy Choice, Marie Callender’s and the like,” he said. “You can see in the last few years, we’ve done this, you can see the shift here, while adding almost 400 basis point in gross margin. So terrific performance, you should expect more of that.”
The company also is pursuing additional opportunities for frozen innovation. Slated to debut in the coming quarters are Marie Callender’s frozen loaf cakes, Alexia riced cauliflower, and a new brand called Wicked Kitchen.“It is hand-holdable, bold flavors,” Mr. Connolly said. “These are going into targeted geographies as we speak.”