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A cereal restaurant? These guys think outside the box

December 03, 2004|Julia M. Klein | Special to The Times

PHILADELPHIA — The Cereologist smiles at the line of customers. In her green baseball cap and royal-blue pajamas that say "Captain of Crunch," she is poised for action.

Behind her are white glass-paneled kitchen cabinets filled with boxes of Cheerios, Life, Corn Flakes, Cocoa Puffs and other familiar brands. In front of her, in black plastic tubs, is an array of cereal toppings, from the traditional (golden raisins, dried raspberries, bananas, almonds) to the unexpected (honey-roasted sunflower seeds, triple-chocolate chips, malted milk balls).

"Hi," she says to a customer, "my name is Sheila. How do you like your cereal?"

This is lunch rush on Wednesday -- the grand-opening of Cereality Cereal Bar & Cafe, which bills itself as the first restaurant in the country dedicated to selling cereal and cereal snacks. Forget sandwiches or salads. At $2.95 a bowl, these University of Pennsylvania students want their midday cereal fix.

In a space designed to look like home -- if your home features a flat-screen television showing cartoons and light fixtures resembling milk bottles -- customers have a choice of more than 30 cereal brands and 36 toppings. They come with an assortment of sugars and milks (including soy and chocolate- flavored, which cost extra). And they're available in cereal bars, snack mixes, granolas, parfaits and cereal-based smoothies called "Slurrealities." Customers can order a special combo or design their own.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Cereal restaurant -- An article in Friday's Calendar section about Cereality Cereal Bar & Cafe said a pilot store opened in August 2003 at the University of Arizona in Tempe. The store was at Arizona State University in Tempe.

A mathematician might be able to figure out all the possible permutations. But most people just get their usual -- perhaps with a twist.

"I'm a Life cereal addict," says Ryan McComb, who has ordered the "Life Experience," which is topped with sliced almonds, bananas and honey. "I eat six bowls of cereal a day." McComb, 22, who is preparing for dental school, later revises his estimate to "four or five." He has left his "Cereal Killer" T-shirt at home.

Philip Gommels, 21, a Penn junior majoring in politics, philosophy and economics, also has a favorite cereal. "I was intimidated by all the mixes," he says. "I don't know about mixing cereals. I got to go with straight Lucky Charms."

"I guess this is breakfast," says Seth Pross, 21, a junior biology major, who is drinking a Slurreality. "I don't usually have breakfast because I wake up pretty late. It doesn't really work out usually. Because this is on the way to some of my classes, I think I might be able to drop in and grab a bowl of cereal."

Attitudes such as these are why Cereality, which was courted by the university, chose to open its first full-service store here, in a thriving retail district bordering the Penn campus. The 1,500-square-foot cafe is filled on opening day with a steady stream of students attracted by free treats and the sidewalk antics of cereal-box characters such as Tony the Tiger. The restaurant will be open weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Lisa Prasad, Penn's associate vice president for business development, predicts that Cereality will eventually extend its hours to accommodate late-night student demand.

But allegiance to cereal isn't confined to any one age group, says Cereality president and chief executive David Roth, whose background includes a Harvard Graduate School of Education degree in human development and the editorship of a defunct culinary travel magazine.

"It does not have to do with students. It has to do with Americans," says Roth, who says future Cereality cafes will be at places such as airports and hospitals. Cereal is "an expression of self, an expression of personality." He notes that while people eat cereal at all times of day -- his inspirations include "Seinfeld's" cereal-eating characters and the sight of a businessman munching on Cocoa Puffs at his desk at 3 p.m. -- "they're often a little secretive about that."

"What we're trying to do is say, 'Everyone is doing it. Hey, come out of the closet and eat your cereal,' " Roth says. "I want the business to be as ubiquitous as the product is to the American public."

Roth, 42, and co-founder Rick Bacher, 36, the company's chief creative officer, opened a pilot store -- just a kiosk -- in the student union at the University of Arizona in Tempe in August 2003. It did well enough that the company is now planning a national rollout. Coming sometime this winter is a restaurant in downtown Chicago, where the Boulder, Colo.-based company will be relocating. Plans are afoot to bring Cereality to Southern California "within the next 12 to 16 months," Roth says.

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