Cereality, or: Why I’m No Visionary

I once worked with a visionary. His name was David Roth, and he was Associate Publisher of Fodor’s Travel Publications. I was VP of advertising and promotion for a division of Random House, and Fodor’s fell under my purview. I loved working with David—he had huge energy and passion; he was always willing to try new things, always interested in finding an unexpected way to sell more travel guides. Plus we were both into food—before coming to books, he’d published a magazine dedicated to culinary travel. David’s boss, however, did not enjoy working with him. Those same qualities that I found exciting and challenging, she found squeaky-wheelish and irritating. She just wanted things done, and done a certain way. David did not last long at Fodor’s.

After he left, David told me he planned to go into the food business, for real. He confided in me his dream: a place where people could go to eat cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A place where the toppings were legion, the cereals were brand-name, and the atmosphere was grown-up yet playful. A place called Cereality. To be honest, I thought this idea was awful. I just couldn’t see anyone feeling the need to buy a bowl of cold cereal (the plan included the hot stuff, too, but the cold was definitely the bigger part of the equation). I mean, how hard is it to dump some in a bowl and pour on a little milk, maybe slice a banana? Yes, occasionally one might hanker for a bowl and buy it ready-made, but a business like this would require frequent, repeat customers. I wished David a hearty good luck and silently snickered.

Fast forward a few years. David has moved to Colorado and actually gotten things going. He’s madly making plans, making deals, doing market research and consulting with experts. He’s making Cereality happen. Just over a year ago the first kiosk-type branch opened on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, and by all accounts it’s a huge success, serving custom-mixed bowls of cold and hot cereal with more than thirty different toppings–everything from chopped dried apricots to Reese’s Pieces, cereal-based baked treats, and some sort of cereal smoothie. They even have specialty milk. Servers wear pajamas. It’s all very cute, and very smart.

They’re talking franchise already. A pretty good friend of mine, another Random House escapee, is working closely with David, ramping things up. I still don’t know what to make of Cereality as a viable business—yes, when I was in college, I ate a lot of cereal. And in my single-woman days, a heaping bowl of cheerios made a fine dinner every so often. But in interviews, David is quoted as aiming for Starbucks’ ubiquity. Do people really eat cereal as often as they drink coffee? On the other hand, clearly there are a lot of people out there who think Cereality is on to something. Quaker Oats was an early investor. The buzz is building—there was a piece in the Times yesterday, and USA Today earlier this year. David tells me they’ve been covered in Time magazine and People, too. Hell, even my husband says the concept sounds really exciting. It’s beginning to sound like I’m a short-sighted ninny.

On November 29, the first Cereality sit-down cafe is opening in Philadelphia, right in there with Cosi, Barnes & Noble, Urban Outfitters, and the Hilton at University Square, across from UPenn. With 1500 square feet, they’ll have outdoor seating, farm tables, upholstered chairs, and window counter seating, and they say Chicago’s next. If you live in Philly, please check it out and let me know what you think. S’s family lives nearby, and I have some friends there, so when we go down for the holidays a cereal pit-stop is already on the agenda.

Something tells me the lines will be out the door.