The Cereality show, coming to a college town near you!

This guest post is by Tracy Lerman, who likes to cook food from the Santa Cruz farmers market and ride her bike by the ocean. In her spare time Tracy works at the Organic Farming Research Foundation doing policy advocacy and organizing.

Cereality interior
Recently a new “restaurant” opened up where I live. This eating establishment, called Cereality, is a franchise with five other locations. It calls itself a “Cereal Bar and Café” and its menu primarily features different kinds of cold cereal that you can mix and match along with a variety of toppings. The cold cereal is your typical General Mills or Kellogg’s fare, and the toppings include candy, nuts, and dried fruit. For $3.99, a customer can order a mix of two cereals plus two toppings and his or her choice of milk in a nifty container. (They also have oatmeal and smoothies.)

The café itself is riding high on novelty, from the employees dressed in pajamas to the kitchen cupboards filled with boxes of cereal, giving it a pseudo lazy-morning-at-home feeling. One wall is adorned with frames each displaying a single popular cereal, as if they were rare insect specimens in a museum. The area with the milk dispensers is called the “Moo Bar.”

Cereality’s locations are mostly college towns, mine included, and that target audience is apparent in the price; choice of product; the casual atmosphere; the fun, brightly colored website with photos of young people having a blast while eating cereal; and the emphasis on the über-"convenience " of the whole experience.

So what’s not to like?

First off, the extortionist markup, which I’m roughly estimating at around 650%, compared to the cost of a box of cereal bought at the supermarket. Using prices listed at Safeway.com, a one-cup serving of Frosted Flakes with milk is about 61 cents. In restaurants that actually cook food, a typical markup is about 330% -- at Cereality, the markup is more than twice that, for food that requires almost zero preparation. And this markup is on top of the more than 5,000% markup General Mills charges to add some high-fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings to a few ounces of dried grains. Even with the current record-high grain prices, the corn in that same one-cup serving of Frosted Flakes costs less than a penny.

Have we honestly reached a level so low in our national eating disorder that people will pay for the novelty of eating a bowl of cold cereal, in a restaurant that sells only cereal — the same kind of cereal that every major supermarket chain sells — when for less than a dollar more, they could have a whole box? Cereal has got to be the most convenient food there is to prepare; it’s not like you need any special talent or equipment beyond a bowl and a spoon. You don’t even need a kitchen to fix a bowl of cereal.

Of course, the reason why the cereal grains purchased by General Mills or Kellogg’s cost mere pennies is the tremendous subsidies that go to corporate agribusiness growing corn and wheat, thus creating an excess of extremely cheap and nutritionally deficient grain products that are making our nation fat and diabetic and destroying arable farmland because they are grown in huge, chemical dependent monocultures. On top of all that, subsidies force small-scale farmers both here and abroad off their land because they can’t compete with our artificially cheap grain prices.

However, I’m pretty sure Cereality's mission is not to show us the “real” price of cheap grains by making people pay $4 for a bowl of cereal.

It is becoming increasingly clear to some of us who aren’t farmers or CEOs of food corporations that, in order to profit from selling inexpensive food, you will probably have to exploit workers, farmers, the environment — or all three somewhere along the chain. Cereality is buying a product already made cheap through a toxic and unsustainable agriculture system. But they take it one step further and sell it at a several-hundred-percent markup, packaged in novelty and nostalgia, and make their own profit while calling their product “cheap” at $4. I guess in these times of economic recession, a $4 “meal” at a restaurant does sound like a good bargain, but when you factor in the additional costs to our health, the environment, and the survivability of family farmers, it’s a total rip-off.

I don’t mean to crucify the founders of Cereality. I doubt this idea was born from a desire to destroy the planet or give everyone diabetes. I bet that they are just entrepreneurs who like cereal and had an idea. But the snowballing unsustainability of our current food system is becoming too difficult for people to ignore. Creating new ways of getting people to buy cheap, no-cook, novel foods seems at this point doesn't seem that hip or cool. It feels like a step backward.

19 Responsesto “The Cereality show, coming to a college town near you!”

  1. Rebecca says:

    People aren’t paying $4 for a bowl of cereal. They’re paying $4 for the opportunity to sit and eat a bowl of cereal with others, rather than sitting and eating a bowl of cereal by themselves in front of the TV. They’re not buying the cereal. They’re buying the community.
     
    We have plenty of food in the U.S.; we eat in abundance. We are eating ourselves sick. But we lack personal connection. We are starving for community.

  2. Ian Lewis says:

    It is becoming increasingly clear to some of us who aren’t farmers or CEOs of food corporations that, in order to profit from selling inexpensive food, you will probably have to exploit workers, farmers, the environment — or all three somewhere along the chain. Remember that human have been eating grains and cereals for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And we have been getting packaged cereals for at least 100 years in the West. People were not reacting to non-rancid, whole grains. People wanted marketing. The companies and corporations reacted. Non-profits as well (Universities are AMAZING at marketing their product). I am not trying to paint the various businessmen as saints, but we are dealing with supply and demand. And, in this case, it is demand that is driving the Coco-Puffs world that we live in. Creating new ways of getting people to buy cheap, no-cook, novel foods... Again, do you think that "they" are getting "us" to buy their stuff, or do we want things that have sugary tastes and sugary marketing?

  3. Barry Foy says:

    Sorry, Ian, but I have to disagree: The popular notion of "supply and demand" is as phony as Froot Loops. When the "demand" is every bit as synthesized and engineered and planned (via advertising and market manipulation) as the recipe for these empty-calories cereals, it no longer serves a useful unit of measure. True, as a species we may have a weak spot for sugary foods, but a more pernicious weakness at the moment is the one we have for letting strangers tell us what to buy.

  4. Gina says:

    Rebecca: we're not sick because we eat too much, we're sick because our food is nutrient-void like cereal. And the harsh extrusion process that grains go through to become cereal renders them toxic, to boot.

    It reminds me of a 1960 study with 3 groups of rats. One group was fed typical "rat chow," one was fed cornflakes cereal, and the third was fed the cardboard box that the cereal came in. All the cereal-fed rats became schizophrenic and died before the box-eaters! 

    From William Dufty's "Sugar Blues": "Since WWII, the food industry in the U.S. has gone a long way toward ensuring that their customers (just about all of America's children, as well as a good portion of the adults) do not have to chew breakfast. The bleached, gassed, and colored remnants of the life-giving grains are roasted, toasted, frosted with sugar, embalmed with chemical preservatives, and stuffed into a box much larger than its contents. Fantastic amounts of energy are wasted by sales and advertising departments to sell these half-empty boxes of dead food- money back coupons, whistles and toy guns are needed to induce refined women to lift these half-empty boxes off supermarket shelves."

  5. tasterspoon says:

    I do think that cereal is a rip, and think that rat study, if true, is very interesting!  Cereal is probably the only thing that keeps me buying milk, too.

    But I agree with Rebecca that Cereality is answering our delight in the novelty and community aspects of most trendy restaurants and food fads.  It's practically performance art.  I don't see that this is worse than all the $4 cupcake shops springing up all over. 

  6. Ian Lewis says:

    Barry, they tried real hard to tell us to buy the Ford Edsel and the Pontiac Aztek, and no one went for it. Architects tried like hell (and still try) to get us to buy post-modern homes, but we bought the colonials instead.

    Marketing departments try like hell to get us to buy everything, but we don't. We only buy some of the things that they market. This happens by choice.

  7. Rocco says:

    Girl, go eat a carrot. Or have some stinging nettle tea. Cereality is about humor and nostalgia, not sustenance, anymore than some crappy $4 cupcake.

  8. jazmine says:

    if people want community with their cereal, they can invite friends over.  somehow i doubt the 'community' formed at cereality is any deeper than that at your typical mcdonalds.  when was the last time you made a deep connection to someone at the food court?

  9. Emily H. says:

    Entrepreneurs will create a business for anything where there seems to be a market. In no way do I want to suggest that I think the launch of Cereality was a good idea—it's a fairly absurd notion, in my opinion—but what I find far more nauseating than the existence of this little franchise is the success it has found. You don't have to know a thing about sustainability, subsidies or the nutrient content (or lack thereof) of conventional, over-processed cereals to realize that $4 for a bowl of cereal you can buy for the same amount at a Safeway by the box is a bad deal. All this meaning that by no means is Cereality "making us pay $4 for a bowl of cereal." Given the countless alternatives (eat cereal at home, buy an overpriced bagel—from more pushers of cheap, subsidized grains, no less—drive up to any number of fast-food joints capitalizing on rising food cost panic), I think it's safe to say that consumers have plenty of choice in the matter.
     
     
     

  10. J.L says:

    Cereality sounds like a fun idea.  But that's a lot of money to pay for processed bits of grain. Though not quite as nostaligic and social, oatmeal can be dressed up too: http://www.chefmd.com/recipe_display.php?id=60
    http://www.chefmd.com/recipe_display.php?id=16
     

  11. Tracy says:

    I just wanted to respond to a few points in the comments section, since I wrote this rant.
    1) People do have free choice and are ultimately responsible for the decisions they make.  But marketing is an incredibly powerful and persuasive tool, and has become that way in the past 40 years. Advertisers and huge conglomerates spend millions of dollars on psychological research to figure out how to make people want stuff they don't need or would necessarily otherwise want, and they have gotten really good at it.
    2) Of course Cereality is not *making* us do anything.  But the fact that they are working to convince us that paying $4 for a bowl of cereal is okay is really lacking in integrity to me.  I am not about to call their patrons victims.  However, the agriculture system they are helping to prop up is victmizing all of us, and at the same time we are all responsible for letting it continue to happen.
    3) Sorry for sounding super-preachy for a second, but how long are we going to continue to justify our frivolous food habits by saying it's "fun" and "nostalgic"?  We sure are lucky that we get to feel nostalgic eating our crappy, overprocessed, sugary cereal when food riots are erupting all over the world and mothers in Haiti are feeding their kids mud patties because they can't afford food.  If you want nostalgia, go watch an episode of I Love the 80s.
    4) At least the $4 cupcake shops bake their own cupcakes on the premises. Well, the one I went to in NYC did, and I have to say, it was a damn good cupcake. Four dollars well spent, if you ask me.  Personally, if a $4 cupcake shop had opened instead of the $4 cereal shop, I'd be stoked.
     

  12. Ian Lewis says:

    People do have free choice and are ultimately responsible for the decisions they make. But marketing is an incredibly powerful and persuasive tool, and has become that way in the past 40 years. Advertisers and huge conglomerates spend millions of dollars on psychological research to figure out how to make people want stuff they don’t need or would necessarily otherwise want, and they have gotten really good at it.

    Tracy, as soon as processed and refined food were offered to the public, we ate it up. I remember reading a few years back about a tribe in Brazil that had refined carbs and processed food just introduced to them. Very soon they started relying on the new stuff and abandoning the traditional foods. And one of the results was deterioting dental health (just like what Weston A Price saw in his travels over 70 years).

    The tribes solution: to ban the foods. Not to stop eating them, but ban them.

    AFAIK, they had received no marketing whatsoever.

    Marketing does help. Marketing can turn good or small profit margins into big profit margins, but this stuff sells itself. It is really no different than the Chris Rock joke about the Crack Dealer unable to sell any crack.

    Processed food, like crack, sells itself.

    We prefer to see the people, sometimes, who eat this stuff as victims. We can feel good about ourselves when we can sympathize with someone hurting and blame the big, bad corporations. But, they, like the crack dealer, are reacting to demand.

    If we see these troubled people, or systems, as living with something that is self-inflicted, we can no longer feel to "nice".

  13. the Gobbler says:

    Sound like the Emperors new clothes syndrome to me. The scales have well & trully tipped over into artiface when a concept like this not only opens but has plans for franchise. Sure, I get the pantomime theme  that might attract people to the pyjama gimmickry of the place but seriously this will be around long enough until the next fad comes along, maybe its will be a restaurant with a 'Prison food' concept?
    What a sad snapshot of us as consumers.
    PS I love this site!

  14. Mollyh says:

    Tracy, Thank You. Great points in your article.

  15. Cereal > ceReal > surReal

  16. Ian Lewis says:

    Oh, BTW, I was not "hating" on the site or the post. Great job. I was just commenting on who actually makes this happen.

  17. TroyJmorris says:

    @8 Jazmine - just a quick side point.  People go to bars or coffee houses instead of inviting over people to drink at their house, even though it's cheaper.

    We, as humans, love being out and about in a larger crowd.  It's not necessarily about conversing with the community as much as being a part of the community.
    That's what this (ridiculous) chain is about.  In college, I would have gone. I thought it would have been fun (you know, if I had an extra four dollars).  Now I wouldn't.  But then again, I'm not really the target audience for it.

  18. jojo says:

    All g
    All good comments. Personally I think it’s a good idea. Don’t get me wrong I mean on the money making side. Lets face it if a coffee bean eaten and then crapped by some cat can sell for some astronomical price why cant some goofy cereal do the same. At least the manufactures put some vitamins in them. Either way they can’t be worse than Double Bacon Double Cheeseburgers or blooming onions that have about 1200 calories per serving. Sounds crazy but I would rather my kid grab a bowl of cereal than some popcorn chicken at KFC. I guess I just feel there a certain battles not worth the fight. This is one of them. Its Cereal and hanging out with some friends that’s all. Oh yeh, at my house we don’t have 30 different kinds of cereals to mix so why not. Lastly if I can by a six pack of beer for about $5.50-$7.00 why do I go to the bar and pay $4.00 a bottle and shoot pool for $1.00 when I have a table and beer at home. Who knows why? Maybe I just choose to spend my money on things that I want to. I work hard so I can make those choices.
     

  19. college chef says:

    Think about who this concept is marketed toward. There is a reason why they are in college towns. I doubt any of you who posted comments are college aged individuals. Step off the soapbox and look at the larger community.  The majority of college aged students could care less about sustainable resources, if they don't like what is served in the dining halls they opt for cereal because it is something they are familiar with. As a college food service worker, I can attest that we go through multiple cases of cereal each day, more if we were to keep the cereal option available all day and night.
    Change the consumers thought pattern not the businessman's thought pattern.