How an Ontario flour mill saved an iconic Canadian hot cereal loved by northerners

How an Ontario flour mill saved an iconic Canadian hot cereal loved by northerners

Allicia Kelly had just finished up her “Hail Mary box” of Red River Cereal in October when she decided to turn to Facebook in a desperate act to see if she could find more.

The cereal had been pulled from the shelves, but she was able to get this last box from her parents’ basement and wondered if, maybe, other people had some available that they didn’t want — the nutty, grainy cereal is reviled as much as it is loved.

But it was from that Facebook post that she discovered Red River Cereal, the nearly 100-year-old Canadian culinary classic, was available for purchase after an approximate two-year absence thanks to an Ontario flour mill.

Off the shelves ‘due to low support’

This came as a relief to many in the North who rely on the cereal out in the bush, including Marc Winkler, host of CBC’s the Weekender.

Winkler said his heart sank in 2021 when he learned that Red River Cereal was no longer being produced.

It started when he was unable to find the product at the stores, so Winkler used his reporting skills to find out why.

He discovered that Smuckers, an American company that owned Red River Cereal at the time, discontinued the product “due to low support.” They’d already stopped selling it in Canada in 2020.

Winkler said he reached out to Smuckers to inform the company there would be support if they brought the cereal back, believing he alone could keep their profits soaring. He wasn’t the only northerner with this thought.

Marc Winker, left, and Loren McGinnis photographed with Red River Cereal. Winkler went on a deep dive to find out why the cereal was no longer being sold at grocery stores, but on this journey he discovered his beloved cereal was now available thanks to an Ontario flour mill. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Yellowknife resident Rosanna Strong said Red River Cereal was a staple for her and her family.

Strong said she would occasionally use the cereal for baking bread or pancakes, but it was a crucial component for long trips on the land.

She still remembers a year ago when she was looking for some to bring on a long canoe trip.

Strong checked each store in town, including her “go-to” Weaver and Devore, where she was informed the tragic news — Red River Cereal was no longer being produced.

“And that’s when I was brought to my knees in tears,” she said with a laugh.

This is a far cry from how she felt about the cereal when she first tried it as a pre-teen.

“It was disgusting, why would anyone eat that?” she said of her first bite of the grain-filled breakfast.

“As I grew older, I grew to appreciate the nuttiness, the chewiness, the texture in it.”

Rosanna Strong said she has been eating Red River Cereal for years and was devastated when she found out it was no longer available at stores. (Submitted by Rosanna Strong)

However, Garth Wallbridge, a Yellowknife-based lawyer, said he always loved the breakfast cereal.

“We had it fairly regularly around the breakfast table when I was a kid,” he said.

Wallbridge is Métis and from Manitoba, where Red River Cereal was first made, giving it a hint of nostalgia to go along with its seedy texture.

Wallbridge said when he found out it was no longer being sold, he loaded up on a few bags — although he wished he had bought more at the time.

But now he’s placed an order and is excitingly awaiting to have what he describes as the perfect hot meal to start one’s day before going, or working, on the land in the cold winter months.

Arva Flour Mill

The Arva Flour Mill in Ontario, North America’s oldest continuously-operating commercial water-powered flour mill, purchased the Red River Cereal this past June.

Mark Rinker is the owner of the Arva Flour Mill, located about nine kilometres northwest of London.

Rinker purchased the mill just over a year ago, and it was around this time that he first heard of Red River Cereal.

He said he spent time in the mill store while the purchase was going through and he heard multiple customers ask if they sold the classic cereal. Curious, he began researching the cereal and discovered its history.

Being out a field camp, or a bush camp or a cabin, that’s where it belongs to me– Allicia Kelly on her opinion of the character of Red River Cereal

In 1924, a woman named Gertrude Edna Skilling came up with the recipe in her kitchen in Winnipeg. Her husband was the president of the Red River Grain Co. and started manufacturing it. It was then purchased by Maple Leaf Milling Co. in 1928 and then Smuckers in 1995.

Rinker said he realized how disappointed customers were when they learned the cereal was no longer being produced.

“The discord was pretty similar when the mill went up for sale last August,” Rinker said, adding there was fear the iconic mill would be closed and sold to a developer.

Red River Cereal is now owned and sold by Arva Flour Mill in Ontario. (Arva Flour Mill website)

He said people were relieved when the mill stayed in operation and he figured many would be equally pleased at the return of the iconic cereal.

Rinker then began discussing the purchase with Smuckers over the course of the year and it was finalized in June 2022.

A press release said the original recipe was slightly altered in 2011 to include steel cut wheat and rye, but that Arva would be reverting it back to the original recipe and including cracked wheat and rye.

The release said the mill is in the process of acquiring a hammer mill to crack the grain.

“Cracking the grain will result in a more creamy texture and restore the cereal to its original way,” according to the release.

For Allicia Kelly, who made the original post looking for the cereal, Red River Cereal is a part of the northern fabric — her parents and grandparents spent a lot of time at bush camps where a hot cereal to start the day was daily routine.

“Being out a field camp, or a bush camp or a cabin, that’s where it belongs to me,” she said.

And she’s happy a staple of life in the bush is returning.

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