ConAgra’s apple-selection process is one way it puts a fresh touch in its frozen pies

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Posted: Tuesday, November 5, 2013 12:00 am

Stephanie Bolli chooses an apple slice and snaps it in two. Seems crisp.

She takes a bite. Seems perfect — sweet and just a little tart.

But she won’t know whether it’s good enough until she measures the slice with her digital calipers, pokes it with her texture analyzer and tests its sugar content with a refractometer.

ConAgra Foods’ principal scientist for research, quality and innovation does all this each week during apple harvest season to ensure the quality and consistency of the fruit used in the Omaha manufacturer’s Marie Callender’s apple pies.

With holiday pie-buying season beginning, ConAgra invited The World-Herald for a behind-the-scenes look at its apple-selection process to demonstrate how it takes pains to use quality fresh fruit and handmade touches in its pies.

Faced with intense competition in the freezer section, changing consumer attitudes toward frozen food, and slow revenue growth projections across the frozen foods industry, ConAgra is shifting strategies to maintain and grow sales and market share of its frozen products.

For some of its brands, that will mean cutting prices and marketing costs, but for products where ConAgra considers its brand the “premium” choice in the market — like its growing dessert pie business, where each pie has a suggested retail price of $6.50 to $7 — the company is investing in advertising and trying to show what makes those products different from the competition.

“When consumers pay a high price for the product, their expectations are high,” said Dan Wheeler, director of frozen foods development. “We don’t want to disappoint.”

Ever since it bought the Marie Callender’s pie business in 2010, ConAgra has worked to maintain the quality of the product while integrating the operation into a much larger business. For the first six months, the firm studied the products and ingredients, writing down what had been informal processes and making them into rules and recipes.

The next six months involved quality testing, making sure that the rules and recipes were being followed and produced uniform results. Since then, it has been developing and refining pie varieties.

When you’re in charge of pie quality, you have to eat a lot of pie, said Christine Hall, who has two titles at ConAgra. One is vice president of research quality and innovation.

The other?

“I frequently introduce myself as the pie queen,” Hall said. “There was a six-month period when I ate pie every other day.”

Hall and Bolli have developed discriminating pie palates, and they described the steps they take to choose just the right apples for the pies.

ConAgra contracts with orchards in California and Washington for Fuji apples, which Hall said contribute to the “sweet profile” of a Marie Callender’s pie.

“We use fresh apples — that is not typical in the industry,” she said. Fresh apples have a firmer texture, and since they’re cooked right away, don’t need citric acid, which keeps them from turning brown but can lend a tart taste, she said.

Consumers are showing a preference for fresh produce over frozen, and the frozen foods industry is responding by developing products that highlight higher-quality and more healthful ingredients, according to a recent report from market research firm IBIS World.

“Overall, the frozen food production industry operators are banding together to push for a more positive image that is more health-based,” said Natalie Everett, IBIS World industry analyst. “They’re trying to get the word out that frozen does not mean bad for you.”

But Everett was skeptical that fresh fruit would make a difference to consumers buying a frozen pie, saying consumers might care more about fresh versus frozen when buying a single-serve microwave meal heavy on vegetables.

When it comes to pies, “I don’t know if they can tell the difference between fresh-frozen and frozen-frozen,” Everett said.

ConAgra doesn’t claim its apple pies are any more nutritious than a pie with frozen fruit. Nutritionists generally say frozen produce is as nutritious as fresh, in some cases more so because it is frozen at peak ripeness.

“It’s hard to say honestly if there would be any significant nutrition benefit as to how the apples are prepared,” ConAgra nutrition manager Kristin Reimers said. “The main benefit is more for the quality — taste and texture.”

Even though the whole pie is frozen once it’s cooked, ConAgra thinks consumers can tell that those are apples are carefully chosen and cooked fresh.

Each October, when apples in those West Coast orchards ripen and become ready for harvest, the orchards start overnighting samples weekly to ConAgra’s Omaha offices. The apples are shipped pie-ready — peeled and sliced to company specifications. They must be full slices — no broken pieces — between 1 7/8 inches and 3 inches long, and between a half-inch and five-eighths of an inch wide at the middle of the outer edge. Too much variation in size and some apples will be mushy while others aren’t done.

The apples must have a puncture pressure of between 14 and 20 pounds per square inch and a sugar content of between 13 and 16 degrees Brix, a measure of sucrose content.

When the fruit meets those specifications in Bolli’s downtown Omaha lab, and passes the pie queen’s taste test, it is ready for harvest and baking.

The orchard operation peels and slices the apples and loads them on a truck headed directly to ConAgra’s Indianapolis pie plant, where they are cooked. The filling is held overnight so the apples have time to soak up the flavors. After the top crust goes on, the pie is frozen quickly in a spiral freezer, common in the baking industry, and shipped ready for the consumer to bake at home.

The apple-testing process continues through November as the harvest moves north up the coast. Once harvested, apples are held in cold storage — like a root cellar, Hall said — and used as needed. In the spring, the weekly testing resumes until ConAgra determines the stored fruit is no longer fresh enough.

ConAgra chief executive officer Gary Rodkin told analysts in September, after reporting a quarterly 2 percent drop in consumer foods sales, that the frozen foods industry has to convince consumers of the value of frozen food and needs to shine a light on its production.

“If you went into one of our plants,” he said at the time, “you’d see that it’s just a giant kitchen and the food is really good quality, good nutrition, very good value. We need to take some of the stigma away from the ‘processed’ side of this.”

Ads for the pies show a woman baking a homemade pie in a farm kitchen, and Hall says the pies can be passed off as homemade, especially with their extra-sturdy pie pans that customers like to reuse.

It’s not just machines at work on the pie assembly line, Hall said. Lattice-work top crusts are hand-pulled. Blackberries are hand-placed. Meringue is hand-peaked. Delicate chocolate curls are hand-sprinkled.

New Marie Callender’s varieties out this fall extend that “homemade” feeling by including packets of caramel sauce, crumb topping, glaze or almonds that consumers can use at home to finish the various fruit pies. The Marie Callender’s line includes 12 types of fruit pies, nine cream pies and three cobblers.

“The pie becomes a representation of you,” Hall said. “You could probably say you made it yourself and get away with it.”

It’s not the cheapest way to make pie, she said, but the company is betting consumers will see the pie as a good value and that using fresh fruit will make a difference.

“We’ve decided that it’s worth all the extra effort.”

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