Object of the Week

If Nobody Loves Grape-Nuts, Why Is It Sold Out Everywhere?

How a shortage of the most boring cereal turned it into a pandemic sensation

Object of the Week is a column exploring the objects a culture obsesses over and what that reveals about us.

Of all the shortages the country has endured in the pandemic era, surely the scarcity of Grape-Nuts is among the least important. No lives are at stake; it is not even a particularly popular cereal. In fact, it’s probably more familiar as a punchline than as a part of your complete, nutritious breakfast. But Grape-Nuts fans are passionate and evidently punch well above their market share because their suffering as supplies of the cereal started to run short over the past couple of months was covered by the New York Times, USA Today, CBS, and many others.

The good news (for fans of the cereal) is the word this week that the crisis is ending. Grape-Nuts maker Post Consumer Brands has announced that the product will be back in stock next month. And perhaps the even better news (for Post) is that this shortage and the attention it attracted surely add up to the cereal’s most significant cultural star turn in at least a generation. It’s another curious chapter in the history of a curious product.

People were using eBay and Amazon to try to sell Grape-Nuts packages at 10 times their retail price.

Reports say anecdotal complaints about shortages cropped late last year. As fans inevitably took their gripes and fears to social media, Post openly acknowledged the problem in January. By then, people were using eBay and Amazon to try to sell Grape-Nuts packages at 10 times their retail price. (Others were chiming in to the online discussion to opine that Grape-Nuts are gross.)

The problem was a mix of increased demand and limitations to the supply side. Grape-Nuts are made “using a proprietary technology and a production process that isn’t easily replicated,” the company explained.

Like any mass-produced cereal, Grape-Nuts are very much an industrial object. Dating back to 1897 or 1898 (accounts vary), they linked America’s agrarian past to the mass production systems that defined the 20th century. Famously containing no grapes and no nuts, the cereal is made mostly of flour (whole-grain wheat and malted barley) with salt and dried yeast. The early formula, devised by C.W. Post, was reduced into a batter and baked into sheets that were then ground into pellet-like clusters that could (like other cereals) be boxed, shipped all over the country, and remain edible for much longer than raw organic material. It must have felt like eating a bowl of progress.

More than a century later, a more advanced version of this same basic process still produced a cereal with “the mouthfeel of gravel,” as a Wall Street Journal article once put it. That 2009 piece, perhaps the definitive Grape-Nuts deep dive, described how a “Grape-Nuts machine” produced the stuff: “All day every day, objects with the proportions of hewn firewood and the heft of cinder blocks hurtle along a conveyor, dive into a steel chute, disappear down a black hole — and emit what sounds like a startled scream.” What came out the other end was Grape-Nuts.

As is always the case with a cult brand, the larger the audience that dismisses or criticizes the product, the more devout its following seems to get.

In its early days, the product was marketed almost like a patent medicine — not just healthy but supposedly capable of fortifying the brain and preventing malaria. Later the marketing claims were dialed back to simple good digestion, but in any case, the brand was highly popular well into the 1970s, when it was the seventh best-selling cereal in America. But times and tastes evidently changed. Mass-made, edible, food-like substances (to use Michael Pollan’s term) are no longer seen as forward-looking. And Grape-Nuts began a long slide. By 2009, the brand had less than 1% of the market.

However, it survived and has morphed into a sturdy cult brand. While most consumers shun the stuff, a core following delights in it — even embracing weird spinoffs like Grape-Nuts ice cream. And as is always the case with a cult brand, the larger the audience that dismisses or criticizes the product, the more devout its following seems to get. Thus the contradictory results late last year (just before the shortage issue cropped up) when writer Chuck Wendig started an internet debate asking people what is the best breakfast cereal and what is the worst. Grape-Nuts emerged as a clear favorite—on both sides of the debate.

No wonder fans were worried when the shortages set in soon after: The very rational fear that maybe Post was finally ready to give up on Grape-Nuts once and for all surely motivated their outsized online reaction. And who knows, maybe their outcry really did save their gravelly breakfasts. Perhaps the Grape-Nuts scarcity moment wasn’t a particularly important issue, but if it gave the cereal’s devotees the happy ending to a pandemic shortage story, I think we’ll all be glad to help spread a little joy right now.

Senior writer at Marker on intersections of design, consumer culture, branding & business. Longtime NYT contributor. Author The Art of Noticing. robwalker.net

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