Meet the Cereal Box Collector Living Out Your Childhood Fantasy
For Gabe Fonseca, the real prize is the box itself
If your childhood was like Gabe Fonseca’s, you’ll remember spending your mornings with the likes of Tony the Tiger, Count Chocula, Trix Rabbit, and Toucan Sam. You’ll remember pounding bowls of corn flakes, rice crisps, technicolor pebbles, and fruity Os. And you’ll likely look back on those sugar-powered breakfasts, coupled with Sunday morning cartoons, as some of the fondest of your life.
But, unlike Fonseca, you probably don’t spend the time, energy, and money tracking down those same cereal boxes of your youth, let alone devote an entire wall of your home to their display.
Fonseca, now thirty-five, lives in Los Angeles, CA, writes for television, and hosts the engrossing Cereal Time TV on YouTube.
About ten years into cereal box collecting, Fonesca has amassed more than 300 packages—some of which he’s unboxed and even tasted (more on that later) on Cereal Time.
Here, Fonesca describes his journey into the world of “cereal heads,” showcases some of his most prized finds, and answers burning philosophical cereal-related questions. No, really.
Extra Crispy: Let’s first address the question on everyone’s mind: Cap’n Crunch or Cap’n Crunch Berries?
Gabe Fonseca: My favorite cereal of all time is—and will forever be—Cap’n Crunch. That being said, I also enjoy the many varieties that the Cap’n has offered throughout the years. If I’m forced to choose between regular Cap’n Crunch or Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries, I would choose the latter. The original is still the best, but adding a little fruit crunch has never made anything worse.
At what moment in your life did you realize that collecting cereal boxes and reviewing their contents was going to be your thing?
I’ve always been into collecting things. Growing up I collected basketball cards, action figures, comic books, pogs, movie posters—anything I could get my hands on. I’d go through different phases and eventually the collections would always fizzle out.
Collecting cereal boxes didn’t start until about ten years ago. I was searching for something Marvel-related on eBay and I came across a Ralston Spider-Man cereal box from 1995. I used to love that cereal. It was one of my favorites. The box was cheap, so I bought it for a couple of bucks for nostalgic purposes.
Then I started perusing eBay for other cereal boxes I remembered from my childhood and it snowballed from there. Before I knew it, I had amassed a fairly big collection of boxes—many of them unopened.
It was actually my wife’s idea to start a YouTube channel of unboxing the cereals. I could kill two birds with one stone: share the cereal with everyone else who wanted to see it and slowly whittle down my collection to just flat boxes. And voila, Cereal Time was born.
How many cereal boxes are in your collection? Give me a few examples of your most prized possessions.
I don’t know the exact number of boxes in my collection, but I’d say it’s somewhere in the low 300s. For me, collecting cereal boxes has always been about nostalgia. So I focus on getting boxes that I remember from my childhood. There are plenty of cereals from the ’60s and ’70s that I never tried because they were before my time. The older boxes are worth more, but they have no value to me since I never experienced those cereals.
Some of my favorite boxes are the cereals that I loved that are no longer with us. I’m a huge Star Wars fan so C-3POs is still one of my favorites. I love Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Spider-Man from Ralston—both are essentially the same cereal, but oh so good!
One of the cooler boxes I have is a box for New Kids on the Block cereal. It was never actually produced, but Ralston made a bunch of sample boxes. It’s funny—the harder boxes for me to track down have been the more generic brands from the ’80s and ’90s. For example, it took me years to find a box of Triples and Raisin Squares—people don’t really keep those types of cereal boxes.
What’s the greatest length you’ve gone to to procure a cereal box?
I’d say I’ve obtained 90 percent of my collection from eBay. The other 10 percent is from either keeping the boxes myself or contacting other cereal box collectors and trading with them. I guess the most effort I’ve put into this hobby would be driving down to San Diego just to meet a fellow collector. But that wasn’t a chore at all. We had a great time discussing the hobby.
At what point did you feel like you had “made it” as a cereal collector (if that moment has arrived)?
As I mentioned, cereal box collecting has always been a labor of love for me. It’s always been about seeing and touching old boxes that I remember from my youth. I’ve never been a completist or concerned with racking up an epic cereal box collection. I don’t think one can “make it” so to speak.
Honestly, at this point, I’ve gotten to a place with my collection where I’m very satisfied and not really looking for any other boxes to add. With a couple of exceptions, I’ve obtained every box that I want. I’ll still browse eBay and some of the cereal box forums to see if anything pops up that I’m interested in, but I’m pretty happy with my collection as it stands right now.
What’s your “white whale” of cereal collecting?
There are two “white whales” that come to mind. It’s funny, one of them was actually a whale.
There was this Lucky Charms ad campaign in the ’90s where they added swirled whale marshmallows to the cereal. You can find the commercials on YouTube. I loved this campaign and was determined to get my hands on the boxes from this time. It took a couple of years, but I was finally able to track down a fellow collector who was willing to sell me a box, finally landing my own white whale.
The other box that has eluded me over the years is Buñuelitos. This was a cereal released by General Mills in the ’90s. It was only available in select regions of the country with big Spanish-speaking populations. They were like honey-and-cinnamon flavored Kix. The box and the ads were great. When I visited the General Mills archives last year they were kind enough to give me one of their mini-boxes of Buñuelitos, but I still haven’t been able to find a full size box to add to my collection.
Why do you believe that some people have such a powerful connection to the cereal of their childhood?
I know there has been a lot of discussion in the past few years about the decline in cereal sales and how cereal is losing its popularity among younger kids as parents look for healthier options. And I get it. But for me, there was nothing as fun as getting up on Saturday mornings, pouring myself a bowl of sugary cereal, and watching cartoons.
And I feel like lots of people my age had a similar experience growing up in the ’80s or ’90s. The cereal companies did a great job of marketing sugary breakfast cereals to kids. As we get older, we look back fondly on our childhood and I think fun breakfast cereals (and mascots) were a big part of our pop culture. Also, taste and smell are very powerful when it comes to evoking memories. Eating a bowl of Fruity Pebbles can, in a way, work as a time machine that transports you back to your childhood.
What do most people overlook when it comes to appreciating cereal boxes?
I have this wall of cereal boxes in my home. It’s in a small little room in the corner of my house that acts as our game room. People usually see it and laugh at the silliness of collecting such disposable and irrelevant relics from the past.
But as they continue to look around the room there are usually one or two boxes that bring a smile to their face. It’s hard to pin down one particular thing that makes them so appealing to me. I love the mascots. I love the art. I love the games on the back—the prizes and premiums. Each box offers something new and fun that you might not have noticed when you were a kid.
Occasionally, on your YouTube show, you’ll taste the cereal. What does the typical 30-year-old cereal taste like?
It’s nearly impossible to describe how bad 30-year-old cereal tastes. When I first started my YouTube channel and began unboxing cereal I was eager to try the old cereal to see if it tasted the way I remembered it. I have stopped doing that. It’s terrible. And worse than that, it ruins my memories of how the cereal tasted.
I’m not exactly sure what’s a safe cut-off date, but I won’t try cereal older than a few years now unless it’s rice-based. Surprisingly, rice-based cereals (like Fruity Pebbles, Rice Krispies) hold up really well. The flavor remains the same and they still have a crunch to them. If it’s not rice-based, it has a gross, plastic taste with little or no hints of sweetness. It’s inedible. No matter how much you might want to relive Ghostbusters cereal, I would not recommend trying a box from the ’80s.
If you could be one cereal mascot, which one would you be and why?
Choosing one cereal mascot is hard. They all bring such different qualities and characteristics to the table. I love the monsters from General Mills: Count Chocula, FrankenBerry and Boo Berry.
Years ago, my friends and I had a lengthy debate about which cereal mascot would win in a giant battle royal fight. It was highly contested, but the consensus was that Tony the Tiger would come out on top. He’s a tiger and he’s very athletic if you take the commercials at face value. I can’t see Tony being defeated by any other cereal mascot. For that reason I’ll go with Tony the Tiger as the cereal mascot I would choose to be.
What do you typically eat for breakfast? Cereal?
I grew up having either a bowl of cereal, Pop-Tarts, or Toaster Strudels for breakfast literally every morning. These days I’m ashamed to admit that I actually don’t eat much of the sugary stuff anymore. I always have a box of Cap’n Crunch, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, or Fruity Pebbles in my pantry, but I’ll only have a bowl of those cereals on the rare occasion and never for breakfast.
Nowadays for breakfast I usually have some sort of fruit. I still eat a bowl of cereal most mornings, but it’s healthier stuff like Raisin Bran, Shredded Wheat, Toasted O’s, or muesli. If I miss breakfast it ruins my entire day. It’s the most important meal of the day!