Fresh has been the buzzword in the food and beverage industry for the past few years. With the retail landscape changing and more companies drawing attention to their offerings located in the perimeter of the store, consumer packaged goods are facing a number of challenges.

“The center of the store is under threat,” says Barry Calpino, vice president of innovation for Conagra Brands, addressing an audience of approximately 75 people from food and beverage companies attending the first installment of the Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network’s Innovation Breakfast Series.

Right now, as more consumers are doing more grocery shopping online, CPG companies are learning how to adapt to technology that enables product delivery in under an hour. However, Calpino says the real challenge for companies like Conagra is to make interesting, engaging and exciting products.

“We have to make our center-store products so good that you’re going to buy them online or in the store,” he says. “Believe it or not, the center store doesn’t just sit there all day empty. People do buy products from the center of the store.”

He says there is a lot of opportunity in that spot of the store, but it requires creativity. However, food retailers are very happy to discuss new ideas for CPG.

“The center store is pretty valuable real estate,” he says. “The flip side of that is for a food company, you have to be really relevant for all the new shopping.”

Under innovation trends, he says everyone is obsessed with technology, and for good reason since it is enabling diverse food experiences. However, he warns not to forget the chefs when you’re focused on artificial intelligence.

“If you only focus on the technology changing the food industry, you’re going to miss the actual food itself,” he says. “Because 20 years from now, I predict humans will still eat.”

To work in food innovation, Calpino says there should be many different sources of inspiration. This is why Conagra has chosen to work with and support new food and beverage startups. Conagra is one of two large food companies that donated money to build a new 67,000 sq. ft. food and beverage incubator facility in Chicago. The Hatchery, as it is called, will be focused on helping food start-ups grow by providing access to resources and expertise.

The Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network is a newly launched program designed to build a collaborative platform for food and beverage companies in Chicago. For more information, visit