CRL: PUTTING THE REAL IN CEREAL
Written by: Ashley Alleluya
Photography by: Khaled Zawawi
In so many ways, 2017 is already turning out to be so much better than 2016 – a year I’d frankly, rather just wipe away from my memory. Work has been going well, people are telling me I look thinner (how? I don’t know, but I’ll take it), and I got to kick-start my social calendar with an invitation to a private tasting for CRL. For what, you ask? Come, sit. Let me tell you about CRL.
For anyone who considers themselves a trendspotter, a gourmand or even just a lover of your daily breakfast cereal, CRL – conceived by friends Khaled Zawawi and Homoud Adel – is the new kid on the block, a sophisticated little shop serving cereal-based concoctions, lattes and edibles. Located in the heart of Kuwait City, CRL still manages to remain hidden from plain sight, tucked away in a quiet little square.
CRL is not the easiest place to find. I’m used to the array of eateries and cafes dotting the main vein of Kuwait City and would usually just choose among the many options I can see. Finding CRL taks some effort and a little walking if you don’t find a spot right in front of the store. The parking is limited in this square. When you do arrive, however, it’s immediately clear that CRL is not your average quaint neighborhood coffee shop.
“We are not a coffee shop,” Khaled’s deep voice boomed at us as we entered, confirming my suspicions. “We are a cereal-based drinks place that also serves coffee. You will get your cereal with milk and coffee. We also have a selection of lattes with flavor infusions, but don’t ask me for a cappuccino,” he went on. You tell ’em, Khaled!
A guest who already had their nose buried deep in a cup of cereal recommended the R recipe and Khaled decided to explain what it was. As soon as he uttered the words chocolate and peanut butter, I knew it was what I wanted. In all honesty, I cannot recall any of Khaled’s descriptions after the R recipe. I caught words such as infusions, banana and add-ons like pistachio, but that sweet sweet promise of the PB-chocolate combination had already taken over my brain.
What I did notice was the lack of milk variants, innocently pointed out by my friend. Lactose isn’t her best buddy and she prefers having a substitute, but CRL for now, solely offers whole milk in their drinks. Tasty, but it narrows down your choices if you’re going the healthy route or are lactose-resistant.
My cup was handed to me and I selfishly forgot about my friend and her issues with milk. Atop creamy layers of chocolate and peanut butter sat a generous scoop of Reese’s puffy cereal, looking crisp and munch-ready. I think I stared at my cup for a bit too long – I noticed Homoud shooting me a mildly concerned look. I took my R recipe outside, to the benches at the store-front and dove right in with my spoon.
That first crunch of the puffs bursting with chocolaty goodness was heaven. I remember Khaled advising me to allow a couple bites for the flavors to really sink in, but I was hooked from the start. I barley spoke a word to anyone for the next few minutes, happily chomping until I’d gobbled everything down. Me eating in respectful silence may also have a little to do with CRL’s location right next to a mosque. This doesn’t exactly encourage loud opinions or rowdy laughter, for me at least. It’s not a deal-breaker, though. My cup of cereal and the music wafting out from inside ensured I didn’t dwell on the repercussions of location for too long.
Once my tummy was content and I was in the happy state of a sugar-rush (because cereal and syrup result in a very sweet eating experience), I was ready to make small talk – but Khaled and Homoud don’t do small talk. Their ideas are big, their concept is ambitious, and their imaginations are wild, I found out as the evening progressed.
According to Khaled, the idea for CRL came from Homoud. “It came to me while looking at all of these colorful boxes of cereal in a supermarket aisle in the United States,” Homoud – obviously a cereal lover – offers. He also recalls wondering why a cereal-themed food space hadn’t been capitalized on earlier and decided that Khaled, with his experience in the food industry, would be the one to collaborate with.
This is when the duo was presented with their first challenge. It turns out, there has been one brand already dealing in cereal-based products – the Cereal Killers, a London-based franchise. Like all smart businesspeople, the Cereal Killers saw Kuwait as a market ready for its next big craze. It is here that the two found themselves at a crossroads – fight or flight? “Khaled asked me if I wanted to still go ahead with the idea, knowing we’d have competition,” narrates Homoud. Considering I’d just gulped down a helping of the R recipe, his answer was an obvious yes.
When I think of it now, Khaled and Homoud’s CRL journey is a lot like an award-bait underdog film. Two friends, one the dreamer and the other, the executor. They have a plan, but along comes the conflict, in the shape of a by-the-numbers franchise. Will Khaled and Homoud fulfill their dream? Will they make it to the finish line?
Months of research, recipe testing and on-site work later, here we are. “We knew that CRL wasn’t going to have a cutesy look from the start, none of the expected pastel or bright colors that cereal boxes carry, nothing juvenile,” says Khaled of the store design process. Indeed, if a building or piece of construction could possess body language, CRL’s clearly oozes a grown-up, raw, stripped vibe – like that guy across the room who won’t join the party and silly dancing, but you can tell he knows how to have a good time. But you’re going to have to make the effort to go up to him – he’s not trying to impress you.
CRL boasts of an all-black facade with white brick interiors. There’s a statement lighting piece overhead, a wooden shelf along each wall to place your drink with barstools and the main counter against the back wall. Sounds minimal? It’s surprisingly anything but. The white brick walls are actually a canvas for artistic expression that also pays homage to Khaled and his social circle’s personal involvement in the street art scene in Kuwait. Each barstool has a message etched onto one side for anyone who perches upon it, although these barstools are few in number. Coupled with the limited seating outside CRL, you may not always find the place to hang out with a book or to study in peace. The space feels intimate, but also like it could get crowded in a minute. Good if you like mingling or getting your drink to go, not so much if you’re looking for seating indoors on a hot summer day.
The menu itself seems short at first glance; about ten items divided into cereal, cereal latte, FIL (Flavor Infused Latte) and coffee categories, all priced reasonably for lattes but maybe a tad extravagant for cereal. Cast your eye downwards, however, to the choice of cereals and add-ons that you can throw in there (at no extra charge) – Reese’s puffs, Cinnamon toast, Lucky charms, pistachios, pecans, caramel white or hazelnut chocolate biscuits to name a few – and it suddenly dawns on you just how much room Khaled and Homoud have given you to create, customize and find your perfect cereal order.
The flavor-infused lattes were what piqued my interest, especially since the menu doesn’t offer an explanation as to what these infusions are. “Strawberry infusions in the red, banana in the yellow,” replied Homoud with a slow confident smile. Strawberry I can still grasp, but banana with coffee? “You’d be surprised at how good this combination is,” Homoud replied. “We didn’t want to use flavors that everyone else was serving up – like Lotus. It’s been done to death.” I couldn’t agree more.
Khaled and Homoud are easy people to talk to – so relaxed and accommodating, actually, that I forgot they were here to mingle with all the guests walking in and out of the store, and not just there to answer my questions. It looked like everyone wanted to meet them and offer their positive review and congratulations – I didn’t spot a single a cup returned or discarded until it was devoured. Before I let them go to bask in the apparent success of their private tasting, I asked Khaled whether he’s worried about the competition from the franchise located so close to them. “Not really,” he shrugged. “We know that we’re offering an experience, not just a product. So, we’re certain people will remember having a good time here, and hopefully will want to return.” Homoud seconded that opinion. “I see all these people today buying fancy drinks from coffee shops, taking pictures for social media and then just throwing a full cup into the trash. We hope what we’re offering is good enough that whoever buys it will finish what they get – and come back for more.”
I can see CRL working as a novel concept at the start – a ceral bar is intriguing, even if it feels like it targets a limited crowd. Whether it has staying power lies in the hands of the public. Does he take confidence from the fact that CRL is a local concept, something that is loyally supported when faced with international competition in Kuwait (case in point, Pinkberry versus Pick)? “Of course!” laughed Homoud. “I’ve spent months personally creating and testing the recipes in my kitchen – it doesn’t get any more local than that.”