Mark Rinker had been retired for eight days when the Arva Flour Mill came up for sale.
The 200-year-old business, one of the oldest continually-operating companies in Canada, is set in a picturesque hollow beside the Medway Creek in Arva, a community of a few hundred people just north of London, Ont. Rinker had just left a job in the pharmacy automation industry and was looking for a new opportunity, and had fond memories of the mill and the village. His dad once owned a business along the same stretch of highway, and he is buried in a church graveyard just a few blocks away.
The mill had been owned by the same family for more than 100 years, and they liked Rinker’s idea to keep it operational—his was the only bid that didn’t involve building monster homes or a spa on the scenic property.
Related: Why Hawkins Cheezies Are Canada’s Most Delicious Under-The-Radar Snack
Rinker and his wife Jo-elle thought they could build on the mill’s reputation for quality artisanal flours with broader distribution, as at the time Arva flour was only available at the mill and at a few other local shops.
Then Red River Cereal came into their lives. Rinker soon discovered that customers at the mill store were regularly requesting the cereal, a product he’d never heard of before (his typical breakfast is toast and coffee).
“I said to the manager, ‘What is it with Red River Cereal?’ She said, ‘We used to carry it and it sold well and we can’t find it any longer. You should look into it.’”
That was in August 2021. After doing his research, Rinker learned that Red River is a beloved hot cereal mix—made from cracked wheat, cracked rye, and cracked and whole flax—invented by a Manitoba woman named Gertrude Skilling in 1924. (The cereal was first produced by the Red River Grain Company, where Skilling’s husband worked; more recently it had been produced by Smuckers until being discontinued in 2020.) After combing through dozens of online comments from loyal Red River fans who missed the product, he decided to acquire the rights to the now-defunct brand from Smuckers. Arva Flour Mill already had the necessary equipment to make Red River, and relaunched it in July 2022.
Sales were steady; then in November 2022, a CBC article on the cereal’s revival created even more demand.
“After that article was published, we received about 8,000 orders,” says Rinker, noting that Red River is now available in stores in Ontario and Western Canada, across Canada through the mill’s website, and in the United States using Amazon. (Arva flour is now available through stores across Ontario, as well as online.)
“We anticipated it would be well-received but honestly, I don’t think anybody saw that type of reaction coming,” he adds while giving me a tour of the mill, a maze of old-timey machinery dusted with flour.
Rinker says the Red River acquisition has doubled Arva’s overall sales numbers. As of February 2023, the company had fulfilled about 6,500 of those 8,000 orders and was expecting to be caught up within a month. (To help fill the orders, it hired another family-owned company—Everspring Farms in Seaforth, Ont.—to produce the cereal too.)
“We’ve had so many people come into the store just over the moon,” he said. “They call it bird seed or bird food but they still like it… There’s enough people who think highly of the cereal that I think we can make a successful go of it as a brand.”
“I keep wanting to eat it even though, in my brain, I know it’s not delicious”
Red River Cereal comes in distinct red packaging with yellow accents (although in its Arva incarnation, it comes in a resealable bag rather than a box). Its instructions direct consumers to boil it with water and salt for 12 to 14 minutes, “stirring occasionally until desired consistency.”
The resulting texture can range from “chewy and very grainy” if not stirred enough to “gluey” if it’s stirred too much, says Calgary-based cookbook author and food writer Julie Van Rosendaal, who was introduced to the cereal in her twenties by a roommate who’d grown up with it. Van Rosendaal says Red River, like other hot cereals, is typically eaten with milk, brown sugar or maple syrup, and sometimes more elaborate toppings such as fruit or nuts.
“I always… end up using it for things like muffins,” she says, noting there are plenty of other ways to use the grainy melange, and numerous recipes available online. “It’s really good in soup… It thickens the stock and you get the texture of the grains.”
“I made a savoury porridge too, with stock and garlic, almost like a polenta or a risotto.”
She notes Red River is also commonly used to make bread—something the Arva Mill is acknowledging with a newly-available mix for Red River beer bread.
It can be made in an Instant Pot, and whatever you do, Van Rosendaal says, don’t throw out the leftovers. Instead, chill them, cut slices from the congealed slab and fry them in butter, then serve as you would French toast, with toppings such as berries, nuts or compote.
Van Rosendaal believes much of the excitement about Red River’s comeback is about the memories people associate with it.
“It’s so nostalgic,” she says. “I keep wanting to eat it even though in my brain I know it’s not delicious… It kind of tastes like the box it comes in.”
“Damn, that’s got to be good”
For Lisa Drew, from St. Marys, Ont., the taste of Red River instantly transports her to mornings at her grandparents’ cottage on Lake Erie.
“It seemed even on the hottest day of summer, we had it for breakfast,” she said, describing the taste as “nutty” and the texture as “granular… like grout.”
“When you make it now, you’re going through the whole memory-lane thing, almost like a ritual to it. My kids have never gotten into it. My husband—never.”
Drew drove to Arva before the holidays to get some Red River for her mom, who is in her eighties, as a Christmas gift.
“She had a crappy old box [of Red River], that she’d hung onto for years. I guess she can throw it out now.”
The borderline-fananical devotion to this cereal that many Canadians have revealed in recent months has even touched people who’d never heard of Red River before. Toronto-based actor Andrew Phung—who currently stars in CBC’s Run the Burbs—says he was caught off guard by how many people seemed thrilled by Red River’s return, having never heard of it himself before last year.
“People genuinely love it,” he says. “If there’s enough interest to bring it back, I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s got to be good.’ That’s McRib-level.”
Phung suggests his blind spot might be cultural: growing up in a Chinese-Vietnamese household in Calgary, his breakfasts included sticky rice balls, steamed buns and cold cereal such as Frosted Flakes, along with rice porridge—something like a Red River equivalent, he says.
After giving Red River Cereal a try, he says his expectations were not far from reality.
“Having heard about it, read about it [and] talked about it, it tasted like what I thought it would be like—it was like a hot oatmeal,” he says, noting the flavour was much better with maple syrup, although that “felt like cheating.”
He says he still loves certain foods from his childhood, and suggests the memories associated with Red River may be just as important for many as the taste.
“I imagine if someone had this as a kid, they’d be really nostalgic and protective over it,” he said. “I don’t get the hype, but I understand the deep connection.”