New diner and cereal bar brings a fresh look on breakfast to downtown Iowa City

A few close friends are bringing the idea of an all-day cereal, breakfast, and sandwich diner to Washington Street in downtown Iowa City.


David Harmantas

Boxes of cereal line the shelves inside of Melk, a diner and cereal bar, located in the old Food Republic space on Washington St. in Iowa City on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. (David Harmantas/The Daily Iowan)

Josie Fischels, News Reporter

“An unconventional atmosphere, food that straight slaps, and a staff you’ll wanna DM,” advertises an upcoming twist on breakfast on Melk’s newly launched Instagram page.

Melk, a diner and cereal establishment that will open on Washington Street the week of Dec. 3, held nothing back when it came to announcing its fresh and adventurous take on downtown dining.

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From Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal shakes to made-to-order savory smashburgers, the restaurant wants to let its customers explore dozens of breakfast and lunchtime combinations, offered all day long.

“We’re just trying to do something different, be different,” said 21-year-old Jacob Pajunen, the owner of the diner.

Pajunen thought up the idea for Melk with a few of his close friends. A City High alum with a strong background in business, he said the opportunity to open a cereal bar and diner downtown arrived when Food Republic moved out of the space.

The diner will offer both breakfast and lunch options, Pajunen said. After winter break, he said, he and his partners hope to extend the restaurant’s hours to 3 a.m.

The menu will offer more than 25 cereals, an assortment of milk options, and fresh fruit toppings, a standard breakfast menu, and a variety of burgers and sandwiches in the afternoon.

David Harmantas
The storefront of Melk, a diner and cereal bar, located in the old Food Republic space on Washington St. in Iowa City on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018.

Melk’s executive chef, Gabriel Caballero, also aims to increase vegan options for diners after personally experiencing difficulty eating downtown on a primarily plant-based diet.

“When I go out to eat downtown, I struggle to find good, solid short-order vegan options,” he said.

Caballero’s main goal is to bring higher-quality food in a wider variety of options for people with dietary needs. He plans on getting tofu from a local company and including items such as vegan bacon and other vegan “meats” on the menu.

Seth Ferreira, the restaurant’s creative director and marketing head, said the business’ name came after a short period of tossing around different ideas. He and Pajunen agreed they wanted to make Melk more than a typical small downtown restaurant.

“When we were choosing names, we wanted something that wasn’t directly related to being a diner or our location,” Pajunen said. “We wanted something that seemed bigger.”

Ferreira said the idea was one of his primary goals when it came to designing the diner’s logo and social media. Though he has had experience producing designs for events, his age and lack of impact on Iowa City made this the perfect opportunity for him to get involved in something larger.

“This is the biggest branding project I’ve ever taken on,” he said.

Pajunen said he wants the diner to be a place in which people feel free to experiment with different combinations, particularly when it comes to the cereal bar. Whether customers want a quick bowl of cereal or prefer sit at the bar and mix it up, he said, there are no wrong answers.

“Melk is definitely going to be the spot at 1:30 in the morning once the students get back,” Caballero said. “A late-night party is the best kind of party, especially when food’s involved.”