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ConAgra Bought Rick Bayless’s Frontera Foods. Now What?

Sean Connolly, CEO, talks about reviving old brands like Chef Boyardee while also going gourmet with Frontera.

Photo: Lisa Predko; Photo Assistant: Jacqueline Iyala; Retouching: Sarah Crump

What was the state of ConAgra Foods when you arrived in 2015?

We were not competitive. We were inconsistent. We had to confront the reality. And losing was not an option.

How did the changes play out?

One of the first decisions we made was to exit the private-label brand business. The cost of continuing to turn it around was too high. And we needed all our brands to be under one roof. The majority were being run out of Naperville, and our frozen food businesses were in Omaha. We consolidated in Chicago.

You have a number of old-school brands—Chef Boyardee, Peter Pan. Can they be given new life?

Iconic brands sometimes can be neglected and become less relevant. The good news is all of that is reversible.

How do you do that?

Reddi-wip’s always been made with real cream, ingredients that you recognize. The consumer trend toward authenticity is more profound now than it’s ever been. So here’s Reddi-wip, which may have evolved into an old-guard brand, that has now become totally relevant and contemporary again. It’s historically been marketed as a topping for pies at the holidays. Now it’s being marketed as a way to brighten any occasion. When a kid comes home from school, he can put a shot on his hot chocolate. He might take a shot right in his mouth. And now we’re coming out with nondairy alternatives made with coconut milk and almond milk.

What are your plans for Frontera Foods, which you acquired from chef Rick Bayless in September?

Our focus is on strengthening our portfolio in terms of brands that are more premium, more gourmet, and more natural and organic. Frontera fit that bill. It has the potential to compete across breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacking. We can imagine a steak and egg breakfast torta or main courses such as carne asada or duck mole.

What’s your company’s position on genetically modified organisms?

It’s really quite simple: We absolutely believe in transparency. We also believe in the safety of GMOs. It’s well-established science.

When’s the last time you ate a Slim Jim?

I just ate a taco-flavored Slim Jim the other day. I’ll have one every couple of weeks at least.

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