Going With the Grain

Your inner child need never go hungry again. Thanks to local entrepreneur David Roth, who with pal Rick Bacher launched the Tempe-based cereal bar known as Cereality, the fourth grader in you can feast right out in public on Frankenberry sopped with chocolate milk; can mix Sugar Smacks with Fruity Pebbles and call it dinner. The pair turned a profit just two months after opening their flagship store in Arizona State University's Memorial Union a little more than a year ago, and their just-opened Philadelphia location is the first in a pending nationwide chain devoted to pushing Post Toasties topped with all manner of tasty crap -- candy, yogurt-covered nuts, even other cereals -- served up all day long by pajama-clad "cereologists." With investors like Quaker Oats and Pepsico, it won't be long before Cereality starts snap-crackle-popping up all over, and not much longer before we're subjected to Baby Cereality (Pablum topped with Gummi Bears, anyone?) and Cereality UK, where businessmen and harried nannies can pop in for a bowl of porridge topped with Pop Rocks. It's only a matter of time.

New Times: You're a genius. And the rest of us are crying into our corn flakes because we didn't think of opening a cereal bar on a college campus.

David Roth: Yes, and the only thing I've lost is my life. What's really overwhelming about this is we didn't go looking for a lot of attention. We sent out a release and opened the doors. And of course everyone told us, "This can't be done!" The restaurant people said, "You can't do packaged food," and the retailers said, "If you're gonna open a restaurant, you'll have to deal with all the messiness of the food business." But I'm a hybrid. There's a simpleness, an "aha!-ness," about Cereality.

NT: That sounds like a cereal slogan. But I believe you, because you cashed in on the importance Americans place on their morning bowl of cereal.

Roth: I used to be a branding consultant, and I saw the sort of very dear and intimate relationship people have with cereal. I started asking, "What's your favorite cereal, your favorite way to eat it?" and the floodgates opened. Everyone had a story.

NT: Is there a Cereal Nazi, like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld?

Roth: No. But we have what we call cereologists, who wear pajamas to work, and when you come up to the counter, they ask you for your cereal story. Not "What can I get for you?" but "How do you like your cereal?"

NT: Can I come in my pajamas?

Roth: I started to say "No," but it's been happening a lot. At our Philly store the other day, an entire family came in fluffy slippers and bathrobes. And Ivy League kids from U. Penn come in their jammies.

NT: I'm guessing you're only open in the morning.

Roth: You're completely incorrect. We're open all day, and we have to turn people away at 9 p.m. And between 4 and 5 o'clock is our busiest time of day. Everything about this business defies logic.

NT: Can I combine cereals from different manufacturers? I mean, let's say I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs but I want to add some Boo Berrys. Is General Mills going to come after me?

Roth: No. We consider ourselves the Switzerland of cereal retail. If you want to make some wacky decisions, like mixing brands or flavors, do it. We know that people want to be cereal artists. That's the core of our business.

NT: Can you get someone to come to my table and pick the marshmallows out of my Lucky Charms? Because I only like the pink stars and new blue diamonds.

Roth: We would not do that. We might be able to give you the name of a good psychiatric clinic, though.

NT: You want to talk about crazy? Some of your in-house cereal toppings include Pop Rocks and malted milk balls.

Roth: The whole thing is crazy. When we opened in Arizona, it was 116 degrees outside, and we were selling hot oatmeal all day. We keep our cereal in these big drawers, and the kids who work for us told us that every time they'd open one of the drawers, the smell took them back in time. It was, "Oh my God, it's like I'm back in high school and smoking dope and eating cereal." The fragrance of cereal is the fragrance of happiness.

NT: Maybe you could bring back some old cereals. Life hasn't been the same since Quisp and Quake went away. And whatever happened to King Vitaman?

Roth: It's very hard to get cereal in general, because there's no demand for it in the marketplace. The challenges we face just to get Cinnamon Toast Crunch are significant.

NT: You could do in-store appearances! Maybe Count Chocula, or Tony the Tiger. And I'd gladly come see the Freakies.

Roth: You know, the cereal companies won't even say each other's names, but we had Trixy the Rabbit in here, who's from Post, and Tony the Tiger, who's from Kellogg's, and they were arm in arm! It's an amazing phenomenon. We've democratized the cereal playing field.

NT: Maybe. But can you tell me what's in a crunch berry?

Roth: No. I don't know. And you have to understand that it's all very secretive -- I couldn't tell you even if I knew.

NT: How come Cap'n Crunch makes your mouth bleed? And what exactly is he the Cap'n of?

Roth: Crunch. He's the Captain of Crunch. Here's something I'm not supposed to tell you: The Quaker man -- you know, the pilgrim on the box of Quaker oatmeal? His name is Larry. But I'm really not allowed to tell you that. Seriously.

NT: It'll be our little secret. My favorite part of breakfast cereal is the free toy inside each and every box. If I come in, can I just order the toy?

Roth: You know, we're coming up with a plan for toys. But I can't talk about that, because we're just hashing it out. You sound like a kid at heart. How old are you when you eat cereal?

NT: The same age I am when I'm paying the gas bill and emptying the lint trap.

Roth: Okay, then what's your favorite cereal?

NT: Grape Nuts. And not the generic brand -- don't try to feed me Safeway Crunchy Nutties.

Roth: You don't strike me as a Grape Nuts kind of guy.

NT: I promise you, I'm not making this up.

Roth: Well, either way, you should come to Cereality. No generic brands there. We're taking the basic format of cereal eating and repositioning it for all audiences. We're headed to the financial districts next, because businesspeople want a bowl of cereal, too. We're looking at mobile Cereality units outside of sporting events. It's a very robust plan. We're very serious about cereal.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela