Food and Innovation

October, 2015

Berlin -- The fast-food chain McDonald's has put up billboards all over Berlin, trying to convince us that its food is really "bio" (organic). Or at least the meat is. The campaign is an effort to stem the closure of its franchises in the face of changing consumer preferences for fresh, healthy food. In my neighborhood there are few such franchises anyway, the result of an effort over the years, mostly successful, to keep chains out. The fast food of choice here is the Döner Kebap, sold out of hole-in-the-wall storefronts.

Meanwhile, the food processing giant ConAgra is leaving its Nebraska headquarters in favor of Chicago. It, too, is looking for a way to turn itself around in response to changing consumer demand. ConAgra is moving into the Merchandise Mart, the famous old riverfront warehouse where its employees can mix with innovators like The Good Food Business Accelerator, with connections to companies that have thrived on offering healthier food.

The ironies are head-shaking. ConAgra tore down the historic warehouses in Omaha's Jobbers Canyon. Now it moves into a giant warehouse. ConAgra partnered with the Nebraska Innovation Campus in Lincoln seeking an atmosphere of food innovation. It remains in that partnership; perhaps it will send to Lincoln some of what it discovers about innovation in Chicago.

Nebraska state taxpayers spent tens of millions to keep ConAgra in Omaha and are putting millions into the NIC. That spending does not look so good in retrospect, although I believe support for NIC will eventually prove to be a wise investment. But the lesson to be drawn right now is that at least ConAgra doesn't think much of NIC for looking to the old, failing ConAgra as its innovation partner.

Unpleasant as all this is, it may be for the best. Our diets need a shake-up.