Conagra Brands’ local research and development operations shouldn’t lose any steam with the planned opening of a new snack-focused “innovation center” in Chicago.

That’s according to a company spokesman who said Omaha will remain Conagra’s primary R&D hub, even as some snack-specific tasks will be relinquished to the new Chicago facility.

In the end, said Conagra’s Dan Hare, Omaha’s existing Center for Food Design and Technology will sharpen attention on the company’s expanded variety of frozen, refrigerated and shelf meals as well as condiments and enhancers.

The Chicago facility will be charged with creating trendier and healthier options for a fast-growing munchies industry.

“This is a new investment in our overall R&D capabilities,” Hare said. “In fact, we are creating new R&D jobs in Omaha because of the growth of the business.”

About 300 food scientists, chefs, safety experts and others currently are housed at the Omaha R&D structure — which is one of a trio of brick riverfront structures occupied by a downsized Conagra that moved its corporate flag to Chicago three years ago.

Hare said the Omaha R&D facility has added employees in recent months, largely as a result of the 2018 acquisition of Pinnacle Foods, and should be left with a net gain of about 25 professionals, even after the Chicago facility is fully staffed.

In all, he said, Conagra employs about 1,300 at the Omaha riverfront campus — that’s up about 100 from a year ago, yet down from the more than 2,000-person workforce based there about four years ago.

In addition to the Omaha jobs, Conagra employs about 700 at a Council Bluffs plant that produces Marie Callender’s, Banquet and other frozen meals.

After Conagra concentrated its Omaha business operations on the southern end of the riverfront campus, it launched a $500 million plan with an out-of-state developer to create a mix of housing, hotel, retail and office uses on the idle parts. That proposal remains active.

A World-Herald team took a recent tour of the Omaha R&D facility, also referred to as Building 6. It was a wonderland of sorts for foodies.

In almost every room was a meal, a condiment, a package of edibles waiting to be researched, tasted or examined in some way.

There were multiple kitchens, labs, taste stations, brainstorming and virtual-reality rooms, 3D printers, even an herb garden — all stuff that a $9.5 billion food giant uses to get a host of food brands from innovation stage to your dining room table.

Hare said the Omaha R&D center will interact closely with the Chicago R&D facility on some matters, including labeling work.

He said various jobs, such as a microbiologist, might be based in Omaha yet still provide support to the Chicago crew.

Because there currently are snack-related jobs at the Omaha center, Hare said, some Omahans probably would have an option to transfer. But he expects candidates to be interested in local job possibilities opening up with recent business acquisitions.

“I would expect there will be plenty of jobs there in Omaha for those people who work in R&D,” Hare said.

Set to open next year, the Chicago R&D center is to have up to 50 food designers and culinary staff members whose mission is to imagine and create popular snacks in cool packages to further push growth in Conagra Brands’ $2 billion snacks business.

“The expansive kitchen and tasting area will be an ideal place to collaborate with our customers and develop new food solutions,” Corey Berends, senior vice president of research and development, said in a press release.

The 40,000-square-foot building will rise across from the Merchandise Mart, where Conagra planted its corporate flag after being headquartered in Omaha since 1922. About 550 are employed at the Mart.

Snack foods are a $43 billion industry in the U.S., with healthier products and more flavors boosting growth, according to a June research report by IBISWorld. The segment is also a growing part of Conagra.

The food giant two years ago bought Angie’s Boomchickapop, Duke’s meat snacks and Bigs seeds, all considered to be on the healthier end of the snacking spectrum.

Conagra also has such brands as Slim Jim, Duncan Hines, Hunts, Birds Eye, Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, Fiddle Faddle and Swiss Miss.

Berends said that creating the snack-specific Chicago center will help ensure continued growth.

This report includes material from the Chicago Tribune.

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