Los Angeles Times

Crunch time

You don't have to be a grain surgeon to get a job pouring Froot Loops at Cereality, an all-cereal restaurant to open in Chicago this spring. But candidates who can help weigh in on the eternal breakfast table squabbles clearly have an edge.

Which is better, Smacks or Golden Crisp?

Should you drink all, some or none of the milk at the bottom of the bowl?

After defeating the soggies and protecting Crunch-berries for more than 35 years, should Cap'n Crunch be promoted to admiral?

What's the best time of the day to eat cereal?

The two entrepreneurs who founded Cereality are banking that Chicagoans need a cozy, comforting place away from home where they can discuss such hot-button issues and, at the same time, feed their inner child. Cereal, they say, is more than just a breakfast staple. It's an experience.

The restaurant, which will be the third Cereality in the nation, is designed to play upon the nostalgic feelings cereal can evoke. For many people, sitting down with a big bowl of Lucky Charms is "a moment in time when they feel safe, taken care of and good," said Cereality co-founder David Roth, who admits he is fascinated by cereal's grip on our psyche.

"Cereal is part of a daily ritual, a stop, a treasure," Roth added. "Starbucks figured that out well with coffee. We want to do it with cereal."

It's a bold vision given the soggy forecast for the industry. The U.S. breakfast cereal market grew to $9 billion in 2003 from $8.5 billion in 1998. But household consumption is not expected to increase, in part because people are skipping breakfast and because of increasing competition from convenient alternatives such as cereal bars. In addition the population of children and teenagers isn't growing, according to the Mintel International Group, a Chicago-based market-research firm.

Still, the act of eating a crunchy or sweet bowl of grain remains an extremely common "behavior," said Peter Chung, business-development associate at NPD Foodworld, which tracks food trends.

Though children are the core market--98 percent of those ages 6 to 11 eat cereal--it's a popular food among adults as well. Overall, 76 percent of adults indulge in cereal, according to Mintel, and it's the third most popular item sold in grocery stores, behind carbonated beverages and milk.

That means the emotional cues of the beloved breakfast food can't be ignored. As a result, cereal is now marketed not just as a nutritious way to start the day but as a tool for self-improvement: Cereal can improve one's figure and promote health. Post, Kellogg's and General Mills now advertise programs that tout cereal eating as a weight-loss plan. General Mills recently reformulated all 52 of its cereals to contain whole grains, which are recommended in U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

And as proof that it's not just Americans who identify with their cereal, Australians have created a singles night called cereal dating. Participants select a box of cereal that reflects their personality and display it upside down in a shopping cart. Sporty gals and guys might go for Wheaties. Playful types could select Fruity Pebbles.

"People are faithful to Lucky Charms or Froot Loops," said Roth, an oatmeal man. "It goes with them through life, it's like their best friend. Three people might like Cap'n Crunch, but each person has a different story to tell."

Started by vegetarians

Cereal lovers say its appeal comes from its simplicity, versatility and generally sweet taste. Modern cereal, which was first created with granola in the 1860s by a group of vegetarians--the American Seventh-day Adventists--is fast, convenient and easy to prepare.

It's a child's first finger food, a college student's nightly meal in the dorm cafeteria and an adult's secret indulgence, stashed in a desk drawer at the office. Cereal can be a meal, a snack and a sweet, soothing treat before bedtime.

"It's one of the first memories of empowerment for kids because parents let them choose the cereal they want," said Randy Ferguson, a Minneapolis food and beverage consumer analyst.

But the main lure to many is that cereal is a comfort food on par with macaroni and cheese. "When I was pregnant, I revisited the cereals from my youth," said Chicago's Stephanie Degodny, 34, a French teacher. "Friends would come over and laugh because my cabinets were stocked with Crunch Berries, Fruity Pebbles and Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch."

It wasn't just a passing pregnancy craving, however. Six months after the birth of her son, Josh, Degodny still eats cereal for breakfast, dessert and occasionally for a second dinner if her husband returns home late from work. "I'll have eaten, so he'll just have a bowl of cereal," Degodny said. "Just hearing the crunch--you can't not partake in it. So I'll bring the box out and have a second dinner."

Robyn Eckard, 31, is such a fan that she cooks dinner for her husband and 21-month-old son but doesn't eat it. She settles down behind a bowl of cereal.

"My husband thinks I'm nuts, especially when I eat it out of the box as a snack," said Eckard, who suspects her heavy consumption is genetic. "One day we went to my parents' house and there was my 64-year-old father eating Cheerios out of the box. My mom was a big out-of-the-box-eater too. My husband said, `Ahhh, now I know where you get it from.'"

Nutritionists, who have long stressed the importance of eating breakfast, see nothing wrong with eating carbohydrate-rich cereal for lunch, dinner or as a snack--depending on the type. Smacks, for instance, which were called Sugar Smacks in the 1980s, contain 53 percent sugar, and clearly belong in the category of breakfast candy.

But other cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals and can be a very healthy alternative, said Tara Gidus, a national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association in Orlando. "If you're craving carbs and trying to find something healthier than a traditional dessert, cereal could be an option," as long as you watch the portion size.

One cup of Cocoa Puffs has 120 calories and 1.5 grams of fat. A cup of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream contains 600 calories and a whopping 36 grams of fat.

Honoring childhood

Cereality, which first opened in a kiosk at the Arizona State University student union in 2003 and has since launched a free-standing store near the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, has a few healthy options. But primarily it focuses on giving customers the experience they want and remember from childhood, not necessarily what is good for them.

For $2.95, customers can fill a 32-ounce container with two scoops of more than 30 cereals (including the industry's five most popular: Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Honey Nut Cheerios, Honey Bunches of Oats and Cinnamon Toast Crunch). Then they can choose from 32 toppings that range from malt balls to bananas. The menu also features milks, soy milk, smoothies, cereal bars and a made-to-order oatmeal bar.

A blend called Life Experience--Life cereal topped with almonds, honey and banana--is the best seller, but about half of sales at the Cereality in Philadelphia come from customer combinations. Hot cereal also is popular and represents 30 to 35 percent of sales, Roth said.

`Neighborhood joint'

Everything is served by "cerealogists" (not to be confused with people who study crop circles) who wear pajama tops and pad around in a "Seinfeld-esque" kitchen setting, featuring long farm tables and cabinets stuffed with familiar cereal boxes. To encourage Saturday-morning-like lounging, cartoons play on flat-screen televisions in the background, and customers have free WiFi access.

"We found that people crave cereal and go out of their way to get it, but there is no real neighborhood joint where they can come together and share," Roth said.

Undoubtedly, some of the sharing could get a little heated. In talking to hundreds of cereal fanatics, Roth realized just how particular they can be, from the flavor and texture combination to whether it's appropriate to drink the milk at the bottom of the bowl or dump it in your coffee.

They also have definite opinions on the fate of fictional cereal characters, which, in some cases, have been around since their youth. Several years ago, more than 3,000 people signed an online petition urging Quaker to promote Cap'n Crunch to admiral because of his tireless work over the last three decades. He's also not getting any younger.

If there's one thing cereal fans do seem to agree on, it's on the most appropriate time to eat what they consider a delicacy. In a poll on a cereal fan Webzine (www.emptybowl.com), 86 percent of the respondents said cereal is at its best "anytime."

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Sweet on trivia? Take a grrreat quiz

It's not just the crunchy sweet taste and sugar rush that get people hooked on cereal. Cereal is rich in trivia, thanks to marketing teams that have given us memorable characters like Snap! Crackle! and Pop! and slogans like, "They're grrreat!"

Television commercials, cereals based on licensed characters and promotional tie-ins with movies have all helped cement cereal's place in pop culture. Clay Siegert, 30, who still eats Rice Chex, Life, Frosted Mini-Wheats and Honey Nut Cheerios, is such a cereal fan that he has included cereal-related questions in a line of nostalgic trivia board games created by his company, Intellinitiative Inc. Test your knowledge with these questions from "The '80s Game."

A. In 1983, Post introduces this breakfast cereal, which is based on popular cartoon characters that avoid evil characters named Gargamel and Azrael.

B. In 1984, General Mills introduces E.T. breakfast cereal, which features grain puffs that contain these two flavors.

C. In 1983, Ralston Purina introduces Donkey Kong cereal, which features grain puffs shaped like these objects from the arcade game.

D. In the 1985 movie "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," Pee-wee Herman eats this type of breakfast cereal with a giant fork.

E. In 1983, Kellogg's introduces this corn and rice breakfast cereal, which TV advertisements claim is "crispy times two."

F. In 1988, Post introduces Croonchy Stars cereal, which features this Muppet character on the box.

ANSWERS

A. Smurf Berry Crunch. B. Chocolate and peanut butter. C. Barrels. D. Mr. T cereal. E. Crispix. F. Swedish Chef.

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jdeardorff@tribune.com

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