One of my favorite childhood rituals was to pour a big bowl of cereal, then sit down and watch Batman: The Animated Series. My favorites included French Toast Crunch (discontinued and eventually revived), Reese’s Puffs, and Frosted Mini-Wheats in its many variations. Eventually, I'd come to realize that eating a bowl of sugar was not a great way to start the day. Years later, I’ve settled into the perhaps boring but more adult routine of a cup of coffee with eggs or a banana. But hand over a bowl of Reese's Puffs and that episode where Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy teamed up, and it'd take me right back.
In 2016, numerous headlines suggested that Millennials had abandoned cereal because they were too lazy to wash a bowl after eating breakfast. However, GQ consulted with a senior food analyst at Mintel, the market research firm that conducted the study in question, and received a more nuanced response. Many Millennials do prefer healthier, grab-and-go items for breakfast, but continue to enjoy cereal as a nostalgic snack. And for those ultra-nostalgia-obsessed snackers who want to go on a cereal adventure through space and time, there’s Exclusive Cereal, an online retailer that specializes in limited-edition, discontinued, seasonal, and just plain weird cereal, sodas, and snacks.
Scroll through Exclusive Cereal’s offerings, and you’ll find intriguing-sounding forgotten cereals like Banana Creme Frosted Flakes, Cookies & Cream Dippin' Dots, Sour Patch Kids Cereal, and Sugar Cookie Toast Crunch. Despite their obscurity, most retail for about $7 a box, but some of the rarer, promotional cereals go for more. Booty-O’s, the official cereal of WWE trio The New Day that promises to "make sure you ain't booty,” sells for $20 a box, as does Exclusive Cereal's most coveted box of sweetened grain: the Rugrats-spinoff Reptar cereal (currently out of stock).
Exclusive Cereal was founded in 2018 by Brandon Thackwell and Edvardas Cerneckis, two college students who befriended each other several years ago while playing Call of Duty online. Though they’re now roommates in Southern California, they lived far apart when they met: Thackwell was growing up in Orange County, while Cerneckis moved between Lithuania, Belgium, and New York City.
"How the boxes look is also a big part of it. It's something you can stand up, and the colors are really vibrant. When we have [the Reptar cereal] in stock, people go crazy for that.
"When I lived in Europe, [Thackwell] used to tell me about all this food in the US. I used to come to the US about three or four times a year, but I'd never been to California, so he was telling me about In-N-Out, Carl's Jr., food like that, and different snacks, too," Cerneckis said.
This led to a simple idea: Why not create a place where customers could find and buy pre-packaged foods that weren’t available in their area?
In the early days of Exclusive Cereal, the pair would search stores for limited-edition items themselves while running the operation out of their home. Demand grew faster than they expected, however, and they were soon ordering cereals by the case and had to rent out a separate office space. They now employ import/export specialists and buyers around the world who tip them off to new items. Between individual customers and the brick-and-mortar shops that carry their products, Exclusive Cereal estimates they now sell 5,000 to 10,000 boxes of cereal and 20 to 50 cases of soda (containing 24 bottles each) per month.
Their customer base includes cereal enthusiasts, nostalgia-chasers, fans who collect specific brands, and parents purchasing favorite cereals that aren't stocked in their local stores.
"In other states, their selection is not even close to what people will find in California, so we get a lot of random orders from people who say, 'I've never seen these before, that looks cool'," Thackwell said. "How the boxes look is also a big part of it. It's something you can stand up, and the colors are really vibrant. When we have [the Reptar cereal] in stock, people go crazy for that. That's like childhood, something classic that really resonates with them."
I tried the Post Chicken & Waffles cereal, which did taste like waffles soaked in syrup but—perhaps thankfully, and despite hints of garlic, thyme, and sage—didn’t taste much like chicken.
People also like trying brands they recognize, but in flavors they haven’t seen before. International Fanta sodas—like the Fanta Banana Yogurt from Japan or the Fanta Mangoguava from Bulgaria—are top-sellers.
Not all of these products successfully cross over from “something new to try” to “something that’s delicious enough to buy again.” Cerneckis refers to Post Maple and Bacon cereal as "a big no," though Thackwell notes people still want to buy it for the box. (This scathing YouTube review really sums up its shortcomings, flavor-wise.) I tried the Post Chicken & Waffles cereal, which did taste like waffles soaked in syrup but—perhaps thankfully, and despite hints of garlic, thyme, and sage—didn’t taste much like chicken.
Thackwell and Cerneckis have their personal favorites, which include Banana Dippin' Dots cereal, Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie Oreos, Mike & Ike's Sundae Sweets, and a Japanese brand of barbecue-rib-flavored chips to which Cerneckis has developed a passionate loyalty.
Exclusive Cereal has also developed a natural, if not obvious, partnership with smoke shops around Southern California, meaning people can buy a new bowl or blunt wraps and get some accompanying snacks at the same time. Natali Mishali, owner of DTLA Smoke Shop in Los Angeles, says her customers love perusing the cereals.
"The most popular ones are the Hostess Honeybun cereal and the Hostess Donettes cereal—they look like powdered donuts," she said. "People get excited because they're unique, but they also like the hype of being able to take a picture and video."
Case in point: Lil Pimp once stopped by Mishali’s shop and posted a video featuring Jolly Ranchers Pop-Tarts, which Exclusive Cereal carries.
Mishali has also encountered cereal collectors willing to pay top dollar for specific boxes, like Rick & Morty Eyeholes—not surprising, considering the same fandom flocked to McDonald’s for its Szechuan sauce, which was repopularized by the cartoon. And that Reptar cereal? Someone once offered Mishali $200 for the box she keeps on display.
The online store’s stock changes frequently and, I’m told, may soon include FYE’s Bob Ross: The Joy of Cereal, a toasted-oat-and-marshmallow tribute to the painter and OG ASMR God, complete with shapes including “almighty mountains” and “lovely little bushes.”