I Was a Teenage Cereal Inventor
"My secret ambition was to be the Wolfgang Puck of packaged cereals"
The night before my older sister’s wedding in 1998, I bought two boxes of Lucky Charms and several packets of Pez candy from the Wal-Mart in our small town in southern Illinois. After my sister had gone to bed, I spent a few hours plucking out each marshmallow from the Lucky Charms and trying—with disastrous results—to soften the Pez through various household appliances: stoves, microwaves, grills, etc. At some point after midnight, I gave up and mixed in the burnt Pez with the dog-chow-like Lucky Charms bits. It was the best wedding present I could think of at the time: the one and only box of my dream cereal, Pez Crunch.
I’ve always been obsessed with cereal. As a teenager, I kept three boxes around at all times: a wheat-based one for breakfast, an oat-based one for before bed, and a sugary one for snacking. On the surface, this isn’t a unique obsession. Plenty of '90s kids grew up watching animated commercials for sugary cereals that buried glowing spoons or plastic figurines in each box. But I wasn’t content merely to consume cereal; I wanted to make it. Throughout adolescence, my secret ambition was to be the Wolfgang Puck of packaged cereals.
For me, cereal was an infinitely changeable food. It could shift color, shape, or form without losing its brand essence. It could incorporate marshmallows, honey, or chocolate, yet still maintain its veneer of healthiness. (Even Cookie Crisp, whose name says it all, boasts of whole grains and eight essential vitamins and minerals.) Rarely was I allowed to sneak a Milky Way bar into my parents’ shopping cart, but I didn’t think twice about tossing in a breakfast food that was fifty percent marshmallow. At some point in my tween years, it dawned on me: If I wanted to eat junk food with minimal hassle from adults, it would have to be through cereal.
Shortly thereafter I penned a multi-page letter to Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, detailing my ideas for hybrid cereals: Milky Way Crunch, Reese’s Pieces Crunch, Doritos Crunch, Klondike Bar Crunch, and on and on. (I was admittedly weak in the naming department.) I offered my services as a consultant. My fee: a lifetime supply of free cereal.
Weeks later, I received a form letter in the mail along with color printouts of Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam. I was puzzled but undeterred. If I were to interest Kellogg’s, I realized, I would need to flesh out a blockbuster cereal, one that even corporate bigwigs couldn’t ignore. And that’s when I conceived of Pez Crunch.
My dream cereal went beyond adding puffed Pez to marshmallow-less Lucky Charms. It promised a complete Pez experience. Atop the standard rectangular packaging would be a giant cardboard head that consumers tilted back before pouring. These custom heads would rotate every few months, guaranteeing ample promotional opportunities. In addition, if consumers mailed in eight proofs of purchase, they would receive an exclusive Pez dispenser, which cultish Pez devotees would covet.
It was, I wrote to Kellogg’s, a can’t-miss product. Into the envelope I tucked sketches of sample cereal boxes and blueprints of where I envisioned Pez Crunch being displayed in supermarkets. And to prove that I wasn’t a one-trick pony, I also teased an idea of an all-cereal café at airports with bowls built into the tables. When customers finished, they pressed a button that caused the bowls to flip. An automated sprayer underneath would blast the bowls with soapy water and hot air, and then the bowls would flip again, ready for the next pour. Central to the cafe was a build-your-own cereal bar, where customers could select a cereal base with a variety of toppings, including chopped-up candy bars, grapes, sunflower seeds, or cookie dough. It would be, in other words, the actualization of my belief that cereal could absorb any ingredient. I even offered a catchy name—Pour Your Own Milk—though that, I assured Kellogg’s, was negotiable.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I never received a response; after all, I addressed the envelope to “The Cereal Makers at Kellogg’s.” Nevertheless, the company’s silence devastated me. I’ve taken some solace in the decades since that hybrid cereals like Oreo O’s and Teddy Grahams Breakfast Bears have hit the market. (Both have been discontinued, which I choose to ignore.) And this month, in Times Square, Kellogg’s opened a cereal café with gourmet options like Berry Me in Green Tea (Rice Krispies, strawberries, green tea powder) and Pistachio & Lemon (Special K Original, Frosted Flakes, pistachios, lemon zest, and thyme).
These developments, however, can’t paper over the steady decline of sugary cereals in the past decades. Parents weaned on cereal have grown wary of serving a bowl of soggy marshmallows to their children every morning. Multiple articles have documented the shift in breakfast habits of the younger generation, with cereal increasingly being left behind by oatmeal, Greek yogurt, and granola bars. If cereal is to thrive as a niche product, it needs to become hipper and weirder, more amenable to unorthodox packaging and flavors.
Which is why, I contend, Kellogg’s should reconsider my twenty-year-old proposal for Pez Crunch. Even though I’ve since graduated college and held various corporate jobs, my dreams of cereal entrepreneurship have scarcely dimmed. Just last month, in a fit of inspiration, I scribbled down “Thin Mint Crunch” and sketched a massive Girl Scout Cookie box with two plastic sleeves of cereal inside. The name, as always, is negotiable.