Can Ottawa save the Canadian cereal bar?

JAM
Photo courtesy of Wassim Farah.

Saturday morning cartoons were a childhood ritual for generations of Canadians, almost always accompanied by a bowl of deliciously sugary cereal.

Now, Ottawa natives Desean Gremli and Tolu Makinde are hoping to turn that nostalgia into a viable business with JAM Cereal, Ottawa’s first “cereal bar.”

“Everyone remembers running downstairs to the TV, flipping on cartoons and eating a sugary cereal your mom would let you eat only on Saturday mornings,” said Makinde.

“We’re hoping to tap into that nostalgia factor.”

JAM (“Just Add Milk”) Cereal, which just opened at 891 Bank St. in the Glebe, offers an eclectic mix of 30-plus domestic and imported cereals for customers to eat in-house or on the go.

Each bowl of cereal comes in a personalized box fit with a bowl, spoon and bottle of milk to enjoy at your leisure. Customers can even mix and match cereals and add on a variety of toppings for an added flare of flavour.

Specialty milkshakes, designed to taste like the milk at the end of a bowl of cereal, will also be a staple of the menu for folks who want to indulge.

Customers are already attracted to the unique concept.

“The nostalgia played a part for me,” said Merna Yassine, who’s already visited the cereal bar.

“But the fact that it’s something new in the Ottawa food scene is what attracted me in the first place.

“As of right now, there’s nothing like this in Ottawa.”

Cereal a mixed bowl of success

JAM is certainly the first of its kind in Ottawa; in fact, it is currently the only dedicated cereal bar in Canada.

A restaurant that exclusively slings bowls of milk and cereal isn’t a new concept. Examples in Europe include Cereal Killer Cafe in the United Kingdom and El Flako in Barcelona.

In Canada, however, the dedicated cereal bar business has yet to take off.

Toronto’s first foray into the cereal bar scene, Silo13, was barely open two months before shutting down.

Dejan Stanic, the founder behind a monthly cereal-and-cartoons pop-up in Vancouver called Saturday Mornings, is seeking a permanent storefront but says the city’s high rent remains an obstacle.

“Just selling cereal at $5 would probably not be enough,” he said.

Cereal bars have fared a bit better in Montreal.

Montreal’s first such business, Barley, opened in late 2017. Last December a second cereal-centric restaurant swung open, Cérès Café.

But cereal isn’t the main focus of either business. While customers can get a bowl at both Barley and Cérès, the two offer a variety of other edibles.

“A classic bowl of cereal is the least profitable item on our menu,” said Barley’s owner Soufian Mamlouk.

Instead, Barley focuses on its homemade granola and incorporating cereal into its brunch offerings.

“There’s a lot of things you can do with cereal,” Mamlouk said. “I think there’s a market for it if you’re creative and constantly trying to bring cereal into unconventional areas.”

JAM
Photo courtesy of Wassim Farah.

Canada’s three largest cities have yet to prove a dedicated purveyor of cereal can really work in the long term.

Gremli and Makinde are hopeful Ottawa is the city to finally make it happen. And the Glebe may be the ideal neighbourhood.

“The Glebe has been a place which attracts, and mostly keeps, specialty, whimsical and fun businesses,” said Barry Nabatian, director of market research at Ottawa’s Shore-Tanner and Associates.

“Given that people generally, and Glebe folks especially, care about what they eat … I expect this business to do well.”

Still, the question looms: Will Ottawans pay $5 for a bowl of cereal when a box doesn’t cost much more at the grocery store?

The answer isn’t a major worry to the owners of JAM Cereal, who are banking on a sense of community and their eclectic, ever-changing selection of offerings to bring customers back.

“We’re not too different from the people who walk in,” said Makinde. “We’re trying to be part of the community, a hole-in-the-wall-type spot people will want to come back to.”

“I’m not expecting somebody to come in here and buy 40 boxes and never buy a cereal box again,” added Gremli.

“Even if you have 10 boxes at home, you’ll come in here, have something you’ve never had, then come back in a few weeks.”

Michael D'Alimonte is a journalist based in Ottawa.