Web Exclusive | August 2016 | By Nicole Duncan

Cereal Gets Real

With a hand from celebrity pastry chef Christina Tosi, Kellogg’s NYC makes a splash in cereal-focused fast casual.
Fine dining experts help breakfast cereal company launch popular New York fast casual restaurant.
Anthony Rudolf and Sandra Di Capua bring fine-dining experience to the new Kellogg's NYC fast casual. Kellogg's

When Kellogg’s hosted a pop-up Recharge Bar for four days in 2014, the brand focused on marketing its storied cereals in a fresh, new light. According to Mintel, hot and cold cereal sales had been declining since 2010, and, with the four-day pop-up in Midtown Manhattan, Kellogg’s hoped to win consumers back by emphasizing the healthfulness of whole grains in many of its products.

By all standards, the campaign—which included appearances from band The Roots and “Dancing with the Stars” personality Derek Hough—was a success. But the pop-up had also planted a small seed for something beyond consumer-packaged good (CPG) innovation.

“What if we were to do this for real? What if it weren’t a marketing event, but actually an operational café?” says Andy Shripka, associate marketing director for Kellogg’s. “Quite honestly, we went for six to eight months not even considering it because the pop-up was primarily to put out some marketing messages about the health benefits of cereal.”

That operational café is now a reality. In July, Kellogg’s NYC opened in Times Square, dishing innovative cereal options in a fast-casual format.

Industry hawks may recall a handful of DIY cereal bar franchises that popped up around 2008 and 2009 before fading away into obscurity. But while those concepts served basic cereals without much flourish, Kellogg’s NYC has a secret weapon. The company tapped Christina Tosi, with whom it had collaborated for the pop-up, to create a menu that went beyond the usual cereal bowl.

Now a celebrated New York City chef, Tosi first rose to foodie fame when she opened bakery-and-sweets haven Milk Bar as part of David Chang’s fine-dining Momofuku. Her zany recipes feature simple ingredients (what some might call “junk food”) in a completely new format, like the cornflake-chocolate-chip-marshmallow cookie.

Following the trend of fast casuals bringing in fine-dining talent, Kellogg’s also hired Anthony Rudolf, former manager of Chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se and founder of the online culinary community Journee, and Sandra Di Capua, former director of operations at Chef Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park and founder of SDC Consulting.

So far, the café has been a smash success.

“I wish we had cameras that could capture people’s reactions when they open the cabinet [to retrieve their orders], because people don’t know what to expect,” Di Capua says, referring to the concept’s outside-the-box order pick-up strategy. “While we expected a lot of kids to come through the door, we really have a lot of adults, also.”

The fast-casual sector is no stranger to transforming ordinary ingredients into a completely new creation, and Kellogg’s plays up its heritage. Once an order is complete, the bowls are placed in a pantry, which customers then open just as they would at home. Another throwback? Each order also comes with a prize, which can range from jacks and mood rings to a manicure gift card and even Justin Bieber tickets.

While the experience itself appeals to customers’ inner child, the menu appeases grownup palates. Guests can build their own bowl or sundae by selecting a cereal; toppings like fresh and dried fruits, nuts, and seeds; and boosts (honey, marshmallows, mint, blueberry jam), and then finishing with a dairy (fresh, local milk, non-dairy milk, Greek yogurt, or soft serve from Brooklyn concept Blue Marble).

For those wanting to try Tosi’s curated specialty bowls, the options are admittedly upper-brow. The Pistachio + Lemon features Special K, Frosted Flakes, pistachios, lemon zest, and thyme; the Chai Line mixes Crispix, fresh peaches, and chai tea; and Peppermint Patty combines chocolate Frosted Mini-Wheats, cocoa powder, and fresh mint.

The variety of ingredients means customers can go for healthy or indulgent—or, as Di Capua says, “you do you.”

“A lot of times people will come in for breakfast and they’ll go for something more wholesome, something more organic … and maybe you want to treat yourself later in the day,” she says. “It feels a tiny bit like a throwback to childhood with marshmallows and Fruit Loops, but it’s really an elevated experience.”

Because cereal is no longer the breakfast staple it once was, Kellogg’s is hoping to expand its reach into other dayparts. Di Capua herself says she and her husband do not eat cereal first thing in the morning—it’s usually eggs or savory Japanese-style breakfasts—but that does not preclude cereal from her diet.

The norms that used to exist, such as cereals for breakfast and steak for dinner, are disappearing, she says. She even received an email from a man who said he’d forgotten how fun cereal could be and was now crusting a fish with Corn Flakes.

Promoting the versatility of cereal doesn’t just benefit Kellogg’s NYC; it also has the potential to boost CPG sales. The café’s high visibility in bustling Times Square is also a boon to the brand as it reaches not just New Yorkers, but tourists, too.

“What we love about Times Square is that there are people coming from all over the country, if not the world, seeing Kellogg’s in a new light,” Shripka says. “If they take this experience home, that’s a good thing for us.”

Kellogg’s NYC is also bolstering its international appeal with an Olympics-themed LTO. The Red, White, and Blue bowl features Frosted Mini-Wheats, strawberries, blueberries, and marshmallows. Kellogg’s has a long history as an Olympics sponsor, and this year the roster of sponsored athletes includes gymnast superstar Simone Biles, as well as Ajee Wilson in track and field, Jimmy Butler in basketball, and more.

Di Capua says that farther down the line, she’d like to have the Olympians create their own combinations for Kellogg’s NYC.

In the more immediate future, consumers can expect to see a Pumpkin Spice Latte Bowl featuring Pumpkin Spice Mini-Wheats and other autumnal toppings; Tosi also created a full year’s worth of seasonal offerings.

Kellogg’s NYC will continue to seek local partners like Blue Marble, and even has a collaboration with a New York burger concept in the works. After all, the simplicity of cereal lends itself well to innovation.

“It’s nothing brand new. [We’re] not reinventing the wheel,” Di Capua says. “It’s not hard; it’s just a matter of looking at it in a different way.”

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