For big prepared food companies, the fight to stay relevant means rolling out innovative new products that capture the attention of a modern food shopper with discerning tastes and a plethora of options.

Share story

GLENVIEW, Ill. — Robin Ross, director of culinary at Kraft Heinz, doesn’t need data to know how much consumer tastes have changed since processed food reigned supreme.

When she was growing up, dinner often meant heating up a can of something on the stove, and when she was raising kids she bought a lot of McDonald’s Happy Meals. But today her adult daughter prepares breaded chicken nuggets for her children, part of a broad trend of families opting for more fresh, natural, personalized meals.

That shift has dogged massive prepared food companies like Kraft Heinz, whose brands became household names at a time when shoppers cared more about consistency, convenience and familiarity than that long list of ingredients on the packaging.

For many of these companies, the fight to stay relevant means rolling out innovative new products that are either developed internally or brought on board as part of the acquisition of startup food companies. At Kraft Heinz, it’s Ross’ job to create new products, or new versions of the old standbys, that capture the attention of a modern food shopper with discerning tastes and a plethora of options.

Innovation has not, of late, been what’s been getting attention at Kraft Heinz, which employs some 2,000 people in the Chicago area and 39,000 globally. Co-headquartered in Chicago and Pittsburgh, the legacy packaged food-maker has been criticized for focusing too much on cost-cutting and not enough on brand building or product development.

Meanwhile, the market is rife with food startups that are laser-focused on the health-conscious consumer and able to use e-commerce to reach an audience no longer loyal to Big Food. To compete, many of the large companies are acquiring those upstart brands or launching venture-capital arms and accelerator programs to invest in their growth.

But traditional companies also have to thoughtfully develop their own products, and not just by making incremental changes to existing products, which only overwhelms and confuses consumers faced with more than 40,000 products in a typical supermarket, said consumer-trends analyst Phil Lempert, who runs The Supermarket Guru website.

“Do we really need 18 different brands of salsa or 100 different types of olive oil?” Lempert said. “I think we have gotten so focused on volume and so unfocused on consumer needs and what consumers really want. This is how these big companies have gotten lost, they haven’t been listening to consumers.”

Ross, who heads up the innovation kitchen at Kraft Heinz’s research and development center in Glenview, a northern suburb of Chicago, has a 14-member team dedicated to paying attention to what consumers want. Wearing white chefs coats, team members develop and test products and recipes in five open kitchens that ring the lobby’s glass-topped atrium, the sounds and smells on display to visitors like a piece of live art.

The facility is one of two Kraft Heinz innovation kitchens in the U.S.; the other, in Warrendale, Pennsylvania, focuses on Heinz condiments and frozen food. It is stocked to mimic the typical American kitchen, based on a questionnaire circulated to 3,000 households every three years to track what kinds of appliances and foods people are buying.

The trends are evident in the test kitchen’s collection of gadgets, including an Instant Pot pressure cooker (in 11 percent of households) and an air fryer (in 5 percent, but growing), which are meant to help get dinner to the table faster. They are evident in the spice cabinet, where ginger powder, cumin and chili powder have gained prominence as Hispanic and Asian influences spread, and in the dairy case, where almond milk sits beside 2 percent.

A third of Americans decide what’s for dinner based on what’s in their kitchens, and the No. 1 reason people decide not to try a recipe is because they don’t have the ingredients, said Ross, who joined the culinary team at Kraft Foods 25 years ago. So her team develops recipes and products with Americans’ pantries in mind. Each test kitchen is equipped with both an electric and gas oven, and microwaves of various wattage levels, to ensure the company’s products cook properly in most homes.

Many of Kraft Heinz’s innovations, like those of other Big Food companies, have focused on catering to what people perceive to be healthful.

In 2015 it reformulated Kraft Mac and Cheese with no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, and in 2017 it launched Oscar Mayer hot dogs without nitrites and nitrates. That same year it launched the “O, That’s Good!” product line with Oprah Winfrey to bring a nutritious twist to comfort food, including frozen pizza with a cauliflower crust and cheddar-broccoli soup with butternut squash in the base.

Devour, a line of frozen meals marketed to millennial men, took another approach, pushing larger portion sizes and richer flavors to entice a demographic that hasn’t been targeted in the frozen-food aisle.

Last year, Kraft Heinz’s big launch was Just Crack an Egg, a microwaveable egg scramble in a cup that contains fresh vegetables, Ore-Ida potatoes, Kraft cheese and Oscar Mayer meat (but not an egg; consumers use their own). The product lives alongside eggs in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, giving the company a foot in the fresh-food perimeter of the store where customers are spending an increasing amount of their time.

Developed in concert with the consumer insights and strategy team, marketing and research and development, Just Crack an Egg aimed to solve a breakfast problem highlighted by survey data: people want portable, portion-controlled protein in the morning to help them feel sated and give them energy to start their day, but many don’t have time to cook before work, Ross said. And people love eggs but normally reserve them for the weekends because of the preparation and cleaning time.

Ready in less than two minutes, Just Crack an Egg “brings the weekend occasion into the workweek,” Ross said. To prove the point, the culinary team timed it against how long it takes to make a fresh egg scramble, and found the packaged meal was ready by the time the skillet was just heating up.

Just Crack an Egg, which launched in February 2018 and is carried in nearly 74 percent of the market, sold 21.7 million cups last year for $50.7 million in sales, “vastly exceeding expectations,” a spokesman said.

But not every new product performs so well. Fresh Take, a coating mix for meats that contained a mix of breadcrumbs, fresh cheese and herbs, floundered likely because no one thought to look for it in the dairy case at the grocery store, Ross said.

Just Crack an Egg is the kind of “true innovation” that begins to reinvent Big Food’s mature legacy categories and offers opportunities for retailer partnerships, said Donald Fitzgerald, a food-sector consultant and adjunct professor of marketing at DePaul University.

“On that one, kudos,” he said. “There is not enough of that.”