Frank Radowski spoons the last drops of milk from his cereal bowl and watches as his 4-year-old twins Nathan and Anna reach eagerly for toaster pastries handed out by a volunteer at the World’s Longest Breakfast Table in Battle Creek, Mich.
“I remember coming here as a kid,” says Radowski, of Grand Haven, Mich. “I wanted to bring my kids so they could experience it, too.”
Frank’s mom, Jan Ploehn, watches the twins’ faces light up as a life-size Tony the Tiger passes their table and waves a paw during Battle Creek’s annual Cereal Festival. “It’s our summer fling,” says Ploehn, a Kellogg Co. employee for 26 years before her retirement in 1999. “I hope when these kids grow up, they’ll bring their children here, too.”
Cereal is more than just a breakfast food in Cereal City; it’s a way of life. For more than 100 years, Battle Creek (pop. 53,364) has been the hub of breakfast cereal production in the United States.
Battle Creek—home to the Kellogg Co., the Post Cereals division of Kraft Foods, and Ralston Foods—celebrates its cereal heritage each spring with the Cereal Festival. More than 300 6-foot-long tables are set along a four-block stretch of Jackson Street to create The World’s Longest Breakfast Table for 60,000 attendees. In the shadow of the headquarters of both Post and Kellogg, Battle Creek residents serve cereal, Pop Tarts, and Tang to locals and tourists in a four-hour celebration of breakfast.
“Cereal is what Battle Creek is all about,” says Olivia Harvey, who works in Kellogg’s legal department. In June, she and her 8-year-old daughter, Ariel, poured dozens of bowls of cereal—provided by Kellogg’s, Post, and Ralston—during the festival. “It’s so much fun watching people decide just which cereal they’re going to choose,” she says. Her personal favorite is Frosted Flakes, while Ariel prefers Froot Loops.
Today’s sugar-coated, artificially-colored breakfast food is quite different from the ready-to-eat cereals introduced by C.W. Post and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg more than a century ago. In the late-1870s, Kellogg established a sanitarium, a medical facility where people came for wellness treatments, in Battle Creek. As part of their treatment, Kellogg served patients various whole-grain foods and beverages, which he promoted as essential to a healthful diet.
C.W. Post came to Kellogg’s sanitarium as a patient in 1891 and became fascinated with the idea of producing a grain-based alternative to coffee. When he left the facility, he set up shop in Battle Creek and created Postum, a cereal drink, and perfected Grape Nuts, one of the first ready-to-eat cold cereals. In 1898, William H. Danforth, who made his fortune as a manufacturer of animal feeds, got into the human food business in Battle Creek with the creation of Ralston Hot Cereal. Not to be left behind, in 1906 Will Keith Kellogg began marketing his brother’s Toasted Corn Flakes as a healthy, tasty, and convenient breakfast choice.
By 1910, more than 40 companies were producing breakfast cereals in Battle Creek. The grain mills along the Kalamazoo River made Battle Creek an ideal manufacturing site, while the railroads running through town enabled the companies to ship their products throughout the country. The cereal boom died down by 1920, leaving only Kellogg and Post as the leaders in cereal supremacy in Battle Creek.
Today, the Kellogg Co. is the city’s second-largest employer, with 1,750 workers, while Post employs 887 local residents. Company loyalty runs high, with generations of families making their living working for the cereal manufacturers.
“We’ve always been a Kellogg’s family,” says Ploehn, whose parents, husband, sister, brother-in-law, cousin, and sons have all worked for the Kellogg Co. “If you talk about Battle Creek, you’re talking about cereal.”