Gone were the free cereal and Nature Valley snack bars. Ditto for the manufacturers’ coupons handed out to attendees.

The General Mills annual meeting Tuesday was a more straight-up business affair than in the past. Even the locale changed as General Mills nixed its longtime venue, the Children’s Theatre in south Minneapolis, for the downtown Hilton.

The meeting makeover is a product of falling attendance combined with a growing cost-cutting consciousness in the packaged food industry.

For many years at its annual meeting, Golden Valley-based General Mills gave away a “goody bag,” filled with such wares as Cheerios, Hamburger Helper or Betty Crocker cake mixes. The company switched to coupons a few years ago, but the free food spread remained for attendees, most of whom are retiree shareholders. “For General Mills, this has long been a retiree-oriented event,” said Tom Forsythe, General Mills’ vice president of global communications.

But attendance has been in a long-term decline. While the company once filled the Children’s Theatre, the upper deck was emptying out a decade ago, while even the lower deck wasn’t filling up in recent years.

The theater dwarfed the meeting room at the Hilton (though the room filled out nicely). The business at hand was routine and dispatched with quickly: Directors were re-elected, and the company’s executive compensation plan met widespread shareholder approval.

The expense of Tuesday’s annual meeting was a lot smaller than the events at the Children’s Theatre, which cost “tens of thousands of dollars,” Forsythe said. “This is very efficient.”

The packaged food industry, including General Mills, has been in a major cost-cutting mode over the past couple of years as sales have stagnated. Adding to the pressure is the deal earlier this year that combined Kraft Foods with Heinz, putting one giant food company under the ownership of 3G Capital and Warren Buffett. 3G, well known for slashing costs, has taken an ax to Kraft and set the cost-cutting bar higher for the industry.

General Mills itself has undertaken three major cost-cutting programs in the past year or so, slashing up to $310 million in expenses for its current fiscal year. With those cost cuts, General Mills has shed at least 2,500 jobs.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003

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