Tag Archives: Swanson

From Fried Chicken to Frozen Farro

October 16, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the early 1950s, at the dawn of the frozen meal era, it was fairly easy to predict the type of meals that appeared in those iconic, foil-covered aluminum trays.

“They very much reflected what was put on the kitchen table for an evening meal, a Sunday lunch, or something like that, with the fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and some kind of a brownie for dessert,” says Kristin Reimers, director of nutrition at Conagra Brands in Omaha. “It was such a new technology that there was a need to keep the food familiar.”

Omaha figured prominently in the development of frozen dinners and entrees, and it still does. Reimers describes Omaha as “command central” for Conagra’s innovation in such products.

“All of the technology [for innovation] resides here in Omaha with the 1,200 employees that remain in Omaha,” she says. “This is where all the research and development occurs.”

That research and development team includes such high-level employees as food science experts, chefs, and processing and packaging engineers.

In 1980, Conagra purchased Banquet Foods Co. (an early marketer of frozen entrees). The company was a competitor to Omaha-based C.A. Swanson & Sons, which developed the TV Brand Frozen Dinner in 1953.

Then, in the late 1980s, Conagra blazed a new path in the frozen meal and entree market when it introduced the Healthy Choice brand at the urging of then-CEO Mike Harper.

Healthy Choice signaled a change in frozen meals toward better nutrition, as well as convenience.

Reimers says that in recent years, Conagra has revisited not just Healthy Choice, but all of its classic brands to make them more appealing to millennials and others who seek restaurant-style meals at home that feature foods different from what they might prepare in their own kitchens. 

“People are looking for the convenience, but they don’t just want the convenience,” she says. “They want the experience.” 

“People are embracing it and loving it,” she says. “They’re looking at these frozen meals as they would a restaurant experience—some way to explore new foods at a very small risk. If you don’t like it, no big deal. You haven’t spent a lot of money or a lot of time. But if you love it, it’s like ‘wow’—you’ve experienced something really exciting—and really nutritious, too.”   

“We can offer foods to people that maybe they haven’t tasted before. We’ve been able to really explore a greater variety of foods,” Reimers says. Foods such as the Adobo Chicken and Korean-Inspired Beef versions of the company’s Power Bowls entrees, which were introduced last year. Items in that product line include whole grains and vegetables that consumers tend not to keep in their pantries.

In July, Conagra Brands introduced Morning Power Bowls, which variously include grains such as farro, quinoa, oats, and buckwheat. They offer an Unwrapped Burrito Scramble, Turkey Sausage and Egg White Scramble, Roasted Red Pepper and Egg White Shakshuska, and Pesto and Egg White Scramble.

And the bowls themselves are made from a plant-based fiber instead of a plastic, providing a nod to today’s more environmentally conscious consumer along with a reduction in energy use for the company.

Regarding nutrition, consumers need not fear they are missing out on key nutrients when they choose frozen meals. Reimers says the nutrition of frozen meals is comparable to that of meals prepared using fresh or raw ingredients.

Freshness is no concern, either. 

“Vegetables that are in the frozen meals are probably fresher than a consumer would be using at home,” Reimers says. 

Why? 

“The foods are harvested and brought to the frozen state, usually within the same day—hard to do, even if you have your own garden,” she says. “The amount of time that that food is exposed to air and to light that will cause the degradation of nutrients is very minimized in the frozen food.” 


Visit conagra.com for more information.

This article was printed in the October/November 2018 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Kristin Reimers, director of Nutrition at Conagra Brands in Omaha

Where’s Johnny’s?

December 28, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed

Johnny Carson was the definitive talk show host of the 20th century, hosting The Tonight Show for three decades at a time when it was the undisputed king of late night television. Carson started his career as a professional broadcaster in Omaha, a fact that is fondly remembered.

Carson started at WOW-TV in Omaha in the 1950s, and he remained friendly with many of his coworkers there long after he became a national celebrity. Carson was also an amateur magician and performed locally, a fact that appears now and then in local stories about the man.
A now-defunct local business was associated with Carson’s name, too. But this endeavor has received less attention, as it didn’t go all that well.

johnny_carson_1970The idea was not Carson’s. It was that of Gilbert “Gibby” Swanson Jr., one of the scions of the Swanson company that introduced TV dinners to the American public. Gibby was the third generation of Swansons to run the company, despite his background, which had mostly been in various elements of security and law enforcement (which supposedly remained an obsession of his).
Swanson approached Carson with the idea of a restaurant chain bearing Johnny Carson’s name. It would serve typical American food with a Johnny Carson touch, such as the “Carnac Burger,” a sandwich named after one of Carson’s signature characters, an all-seeing seer in a feathered turban.
Carson lent his name to the project, but, he later claimed, little else—he was neither the owner of the business nor a stakeholder. He was, instead, board chairman, a job that was “mostly for publicity purposes,” according to the World-Herald. This would prove important later.

There was initially much excitement about the opening of the chain, which debuted in Omaha on 72nd Street in 1969. Carson himself came out to promote the opening, taking a tour of his old haunts and charming the press. A second restaurant opened on Saddle Creek, but only lasted a few years.
Meanwhile, Here’s Johnny’s restaurants began to spring up across America—a reported 302 franchises were purchased in the U.S. and Canada. Of those that opened, most were short-lived, and in 1979 the company went bankrupt. The World-Herald reported that the Swanson family took a bath on the enterprise, with Gibby losing $1.77 million of his own money; Gibby owed another $1.2 million to other Swanson companies and his brother, Jay.

Several franchise owners filed lawsuits against the company, claiming disastrous rollout, including kitchen equipment that “disintegrated,” as well as claims that franchisees were told Carson himself had invested in the company, only to later learn that this wasn’t true. In September 1976, the first Here’s Johnny’s restaurant on 72nd closed, bringing an end to the business.

This wasn’t Gibby’s only failed franchise, but there is a happier ending to another story: Gibby hoped to start a franchise of fried chicken restaurants targeted at inner-city business owners, and partnered with sports stars Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer to achieve this goal. While the business never developed into a true franchise, it did manage to open one restaurant: Time Out Foods, which is still a beloved institution in North Omaha.

Visit timeoutfoods.com for more information.

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