PHILADELPHIA – How's this for thinking outside the box: a cafe with jammies-clad servers pouring cereal day and night, topping it off with everything from fruit to malted milk balls, and serving it in "bowls" resembling Chinese takeout containers. It's all cereal. Seriously.
Cereality Cereal Bar & Cafe (search), which opened its first sit-down cafe Wednesday on the University of Pennsylvania campus, is a sugarcoated — and tongue-in-cheek — homage to what your mother always told you was the most important meal of the day. But she probably never dished out bowls of Froot Loops and Cap'n Crunch topped with Pop Rocks.
Behind glass-door kitchen-style cabinets at Cereality are 30 varieties of brand-name cold cereal. Customers order from "cereologists," whose most popular mix is two 8-ounce scoops with one of 36 toppings, plus regular, flavored or soy milk for $2.95. Also offered are cereal bars and made-to-order cereal smoothies and yogurt blends.
Though some of the choices sound like a sugar overdose or a dental disaster to the uninitiated (or to those long past their college years), they're not all that indulgent.
"This is great because you can try all different kinds and not have to buy the whole box," said Penn freshman Erica Denhoff, 18, as she munched on a healthy concoction of Quaker Oat Squares, Corn Chex and yogurt flax bark with skim milk. "I'm on the track team. ... I eat cereal for breakfast and for a snack if I need energy."
Co-founders David Roth and Rick Bacher opened the first Cereality, a 200-square-foot kiosk in Arizona State University's (search) student union, last year. Besides the 1,500-square-foot Philadelphia cafe in the middle of Penn's retail district, the Boulder, Colo.-based company wants to open more than a dozen Cerealities next year on campuses, hospital lobbies, airports and office buildings.
"We don't see this as (solely) a college concept, we see this as being relevant to the 95 percent of the American public that eats cereal," Roth said. If college students — "the most cynical market we can go after" — like it, Roth's confident that office workers and travelers will like it too.
Cereality also offers its own combos with names reminiscent of Ben and Jerry's ice creams. John Merz, a 27-year-old Penn employee, was bowled over by Devil Made Me Do It — an ambrosial elixir of Cocoa Puffs, Lucky Charms, chocolate crunchies and malt balls, topped with milk.
"I'm always on a sugar high, so this doesn't make that much of a difference," he said with a laugh that sounded sugar-influenced despite his assertion.
"You're eating candy with milk on it!" chided his co-worker Caroline Couture, 42. After polishing off her Banana Brown Betty with hot oatmeal, bananas, molasses sugar and streusel topping, she said that she'd be having a salad for lunch — but that she'd visit Cereality again.
"We're all still kids, really," she said. "A lot of the foods you loved in childhood you still love as an adult."
In Philadelphia, customers can eat Apple Jacks and stretch out on a couch (Mom might not approve, but it's OK here), watch cartoons on a flat-screen TV or check their e-mail via free Wi-Fi access.
Like build-your-own salad bars with fattening and healthy foods side by side, "I think this is something that's as good or as bad as you want it to be," said Jeanne Goldberg of Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
American Dietetic Association (search) spokeswoman Gail Frank agreed that cereals can be a good fast food because they're high in fiber and loaded with vitamins and minerals — as long as customers keep their sweet tooths in check and pick healthier toppings like nuts and fruit.
Between bites of hot oatmeal with cranberries and almonds, Penn junior Alpha Mengistu, 20, said Cereality offered more than a quick carb- and sugar-load.
"I think this would be a good place for a date," she said. "You could learn a lot about a person by what cereal they choose."