Grab a bowl and gather ‘round the table for a tale that stays crispy in milk!
Not all fandoms reach the masses — some are an acquired taste. Like breakfast cereal.
While some fans work to round out their collections of action figures, die-cast cars, sports memorabilia, or fine art, there’s a growing legion of collectors focused on cereal. In a lot of ways, they share a kinship with shoe-collecting sneakerheads, right down to their nickname: cerealheads.
Gabe Fonseca is a TV writer and producer, with credits including Netflix’s Marvel’s Jessica Jones and NBC’s The Night Shift. He’s currently spending time in New York City working on the hip-hop mini-series Wu-Tang: An American Saga, which is set to debut on Hulu later this year. Back home in Los Angeles, though, Fonseca has 216 cereal boxes displayed on a wall in his house, with more than 300 additional flattened boxes stored away in a closet. When he’s not working behind the scenes, he’s jumping in front of the camera to throw down some knowledge on breakfast history.
Through his popular YouTube series, Cereal Time TV, Fonseca takes viewers beyond the box and into the history of cereal — exploring each brand in great detail. Sometimes he’ll even crack open a vintage box for a taste, but that’s one of those things he’d rather you not try at home.
“The YouTube channel came out of necessity more than anything else,” he explains. “My collection of unopened boxes had grown quite large, … and my wife suggested that I open the boxes on video and explain a little about the history of each cereal. It started as a way for me to document and save memories of these old cereals for myself, … but apparently other people enjoy the trip down memory lane.”
Fonseca says that the seeds of his collection started back when Wheaties would regularly feature NBA stars, such as Michael Jordan, the “Bad Boys”-era Detroit Pistons, and the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers.
“That was just a small, very specific collection,” he says. “I didn’t start collecting boxes seriously until the early 2000s. I was browsing eBay one day and came across an unopened box of Spider-Man Cereal (1995) from Ralston. That was one of my favorite cereals of the ‘90s, and I decided I had to buy it. From there everything kind of snowballed. I would continue to check eBay and buy other boxes that sparked a nostalgic feeling in me — boxes that took me back to Saturday mornings, sitting in front of the TV while watching cartoons and eating cereal.”
For those of a certain age, the Saturday morning experience is a cherished reminder of simpler times. Between the ‘70s and ‘90s, there was an explosion of pop culture that gave birth to an onslaught of licensing that saw countless popular characters make the jump from the screen to the cereal aisle.
“I’m a sucker for the licensed cereals. I loved them growing up,” Fonseca explains, noting the similarity between two of his all-time favorites — Spider-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
“Both were from Ralston, and they were essentially the same cereal: sweetened Rice Chex with themed marshmallows,” Fonseca says. “In Spider-Man, the Chex represented spider webs, and in TMNT they were supposed to be nets, which never made much sense because none of the Turtles used a net as his weapon.”
Among the great pop culture and movie tie-ins hitting the cereal aisle over the past few decades, Gabe points to C-3PO’s, Ghostbusters, Pac-Man, Smurf Berry Crunch, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal, and the Nintendo Cereal System as high points. He also finds Rainbow Brite to be a high point, noting that it was one of the few to feature a female mascot on its box.
“As for licensed cereals that never quite lived up to their potential, I’d have to go with Gremlins, Batman, WWF Superstars, and Mr. T cereal,” he says. “They were essentially the same cereal just in different shapes — Gizmos, bats, stars, and the letter T. They featured crunchy, lightly sweetened pieces that resembled Quisp or Cap’n Crunch in flavor, but not nearly as tasty.”
Though the golden age of licensed cereals may be behind us, dozens still hit the market for a limited time each year; however, like some of their predecessors, they’re pretty bland.
“There is a trend nowadays to put as little creative thought as possible behind licensed cereals,” Fonseca says. “Many of the movie tie-in or video game cereals are just oat squares or circles with special marshmallows. Kellogg’s is the worst culprit.”
Despite having eaten so many cereals over the years, Fonseca’s all-time favorite is a cereal aisle classic that’s been enjoyed by millions since its debut in 1963. In a 2014 episode of Cereal Time TV, Fonseca revealed Quaker Oats’ Cap’n Crunch as his all-time favorite — a cereal he loves so much that he had a pair of kicks custom-made to show off his respect for the Cap’n. Five years later, have his tastes changed?
“I think Cap’n Crunch or Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries will always hold that top spot of my favorite cereal,” he says. “But there is some very close competition from Fruity Pebbles, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Lucky Charms. My dark horse is actually a healthier cereal from Nature’s Path called Blueberry Cinnamon Flax. I pretty much eat Nature’s Path cereals for breakfast every morning. I enjoy the healthier stuff these days. I still eat the sweeter cereals, but not for breakfast like I did when I was younger — nowadays those are special treats or late-evening snacks.”
Cereal Time TV is very much a time capsule for cerealheads, and it’s led to some windows opening into the past — such as a trip into the archives of General Mills in Minneapolis. There, classic boxes from the past are displayed in acrylic cases as if they were graded action figures, and storage rooms house thousands of flattened boxes from brands long since lost, including some that never even made it to market.
As we know from living in a culture that constantly mines the collective archives in search of the next retro hit, the past can hold clues to the future. Fonseca was shown boxes of General Mills Peanut Butter and Cinnamon Tiny Toasts — a brand name that was squashed before it even hit market and launched as something more famous: Cinnamon Toast Crunch. But in 2016, General Mills used the name (minus the “s”) as Tiny Toast, which was launched in blueberry and strawberry flavors. The duo lasted about a year before the company renamed them as Blueberry Toast Crunch and Strawberry Toast Crunch.
Given the power, what dead or dormant brands would the mind behind Cereal Time TV resurrect?
“Hidden Treasures is definitely at the top of my list,” Fonseca says. “OJ’s was an orange-flavored cereal that featured OJ Joe, a cowboy (orange wrangler), as the mascot. Sir Grapefellow was before my time, but is something I’ve always wanted to try because I love grape-flavored things.”
Fonseca found one gem he was seeking in the General Mills archives. It was a cereal inspired by Mexican pastries that he’d tried in the early ‘90s but hasn’t been able to get his hands on since.
“There was a cereal called Buñuelitos that was only released regionally (Spanish-speaking areas) in the U.S., and it was so good,” he explains. “That cereal was like Kix, but with a honey-and-cinnamon dusting.”
There’s also a lot of love for the legendary — yet still abandoned — members of the Monster Cereals family: Fruit Brute and Yummy Mummy. The former counts filmmaker Quentin Tarantino among one of its biggest fans, often placing boxes in his films as an Easter egg.
“They did a promotion a few years back where they reintroduced them with updated flavors,” Fonseca says. He adds that there’s been a shift in the recipe from oat-based to corn-based, likely because corn is cheaper. “I wish they brought them back full time with the other Monster Cereals for Halloween, or maybe even introduce a new monster to the roster. I feel like people have been clamoring for a new Monster Cereal for years.”
As Cereal Time TV continues to grow, other enthusiast sites, vlogs, and podcasts are also making moves in the cereal fandom realm. Occasionally, when Fonseca’s creative gigs get in the way, Cereal Time TV goes on hiatus, inspiring followers to revisit the archives — or in some cases — pay tribute in the event that the series shouldn’t return. Thus far, it always has, and new episodes are enthusiastically welcomed by more cerealheads than ever before.
“Only a few years ago, I remember reading articles about millennials not eating cereal and how the cereal companies were worried that the cereal market was shrinking,” Fonseca reflects. “And it actually might be — I don’t know the numbers. But I definitely feel like the online fandom for cereal is at an all-time high.”
In the past few years, cereals have returned to corporate break rooms and home pantries, and dedicated cereal bars are opening in major cities. One of those is Kellogg’s NYC, a destination meant to “transform the cereal you love from a morning staple to an any-time-of-day experience.”
“Eating a bowl of Fruity Pebbles transports me back to my childhood,” Fonseca says. “Sense memory is a very powerful thing. Whether it’s the taste, the smell, or even the visuals from a box, … cereal can have that magical quality and — at the end of the day — it just makes people happy.”
Take a trip down the (Trix?) rabbit hole at cerealtime.tv
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Summer 2019 Issue No. 4, click here to read more!