Breakfast Beat

Phoenix's Caffeinated Cereal Is No Java Jive

Phoenix-based Espress-Os tastes like coffee and gives you a caffeine buzz.
Phoenix-based Espress-Os tastes like coffee and gives you a caffeine buzz. Tim Kieborz
Timothy Kieborz talks really fast. Perhaps because he’s been eating Espress-Os, the caffeine-infused breakfast cereal he invented a few years back.

“I wanted something that was dark-coffee based and gave you the good flavor of coffee but also the morning satisfaction of cereal,” he says, quickly and rather breathlessly. “And it had to be in the shape of an O.”

The overnight success of Espress-Os began a decade ago, when Kieborz, a local ER physician, was late one morning for work.

“I was driving to the hospital and eating chocolate Cheerios out of a cup as I drove,” he remembers. “And I was thinking, Why didn’t anyone ever think to add coffee to cereal? Because I could use some right now.”

He mentioned the idea to his wife that night, and she kept after him until he finally copyrighted a name and a concept. Only then did it occur to Kieborz he knew nothing about manufacturing and marketing breakfast food.

“I joined some food concept groups,” he recalls of his breakfast cereal education. “And I went to Battle Creek, Michigan, and met with this guy, Jeff Groff, who had worked for Kellogg’s, the cereal kings.”

Focus group testing followed; so did endless tweaking. “I wanted to end up with a cereal that you skipped down the stairs for in the morning,” Kieborz remembers, “like you did when you were a kid.”

That took a while. “We finally settled on creating a slurry,” he says of the Espress-Os magic. “We grind coffee flour from espresso beans and spread that on the cereal pieces. Then we coat them in chocolate and some of them in white chocolate, and finally a coarse-ground version of coffee beans. You wind up with three colors and three textures.”

And quite the buzz, one would imagine.

“Not really,” Kieborz says with a laugh. “You get about 160 to 180 milligrams of caffeine in each ounce of cereal—the equivalent of about two cups of coffee per serving. But yes, we’re marketing Espress-Os to adults, not children.”

Others had tried before to combine a cup of joe with breakfast cereal. General Mills put out a version of Cap’n Crunch, Kieborz remembers, little coffee-flavored corn balls that no one bought. Last year, Post joined up with Dunkin Donuts to create a mocha latte cereal that also wasn’t well-received.

“Kellogg’s told me they’d thought about doing coffee cereal,” says Kieborz, who grew up here and went to Carl Hayden High. “But that they’d need to sell $30 million worth that first year, which they didn’t think they could do.”

Espress-Os is different than those other failed cereals, Kieborz insists, because he uses real chocolate in his mix. “If you leave Espress-Os out in the sun,” he says, “it will melt and turn into a popcorn ball. That’s how fresh our chocolate is.”

At first, Kieborz peddled his coffee-flavored concoction at local farmers markets, but a distribution deal with Danzeisen Dairy has landed the cereal some shelf space at AJ’s and other high-end grocery stores. But all is not breakfast-cereal sweet just yet. Because Espress-Os is made by hand, it’s costing Kieborz a bundle to manufacture it.

“All this talk about artisan this and handcrafted that really bugs me,” he says. “But it’s a ton of labor to make our cereal. Until we’re doing more volume, the cost is significant. We’ve got to get bigger.”

Toward that end, Kieborz is working on new Espress-Os flavors. So far, the frontrunner is something called Mexican Coffee, a mix of roasted cinnamon, dark chocolate, and a little orange peel.

“We’re playing around with the idea of adding a little tequila to it,” Kieborz says. “I’ve been working on that and on one I call Banana and Bourbon Vanilla, sort of a spin on Bananas Foster where we’d grind up vanilla beans and pureed banana and apply that to the cereal.”

All this sample-tasting and test-marketing has taught Kieborz more, he says, than any ER doc should know about breakfast cereal. But he believes in Espress-Os, he says. He loves Espress-Os.

“Seriously,” he says. “I eat so much of this stuff that when I pee, my pee smells like Starbucks.”

He pauses for the first time in several minutes. “Is that more than you need to know?” he asks. “Sorry. Sorry. That’s probably more than you need to know.”
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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