How the cream cheese shortage is affecting New York City bagel stores


Zabar’s is weak. Tompkins Square Bagels is reduced to sticks. Pick-a-Bagel only has a few days left in stock.

Across New York City, bagel makers say, a shortage of schmear threatens one of the most valuable local specialties: a fresh bagel with cream cheese.

“It’s bad. It’s very bad,” said Pedro Aguilar, manager of the Pick-a-Bagel chain, which has several branches in Manhattan. Friday afternoon, Mr. Aguilar said he did had enough cream cheese to last until Monday.

Nick Patta, who worked at Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side for 11 years, said his regular supplier in Queens was running out of the store’s brand of cream cheese for the first time he could remember.

“We went there this week and the shelves were empty,” he said.

Supply chain issues have plagued the United States for months, causing shortages of everything from cars to running shoes. In Alaska, residents are struggling to acquire winter coats.

Now New York City bagel vendors are starting to feel the effects of a sudden and surprising development that has forced them to scramble to find and accumulate as much cream cheese as possible.

Zabar’s chief executive Scott Goldshine estimated on Friday that he had enough to last 10 days.

“Begging is one of my plans, which I have done, and it has helped me,” Goldshine said, adding that he had called about eight distributors in the past few days. “If anyone has it, call me.”

New York bagel vendors consume thousands of pounds of cream cheese every few weeks. The recipe for the beloved spread, which according to the company Kraft Heinz originating in New York in the 1870s, is quite simple: lactic acid, pasteurized milk and cream. Many stores start their mixes with Philadelphia Cream Cheese, a Kraft Heinz brand, which arrives on huge pallets.

Pallets aren’t stocked with the Philadelphia cream cheese found on most grocery store shelves: The raw product that arrives at bagel stores isn’t processed or whipped, the bagel makers said, who use it as a basis for their own creations. Without that base, they said, the spreads just won’t taste or feel the same, and customers will notice.

But for about three weeks now, dairy suppliers said, orders for cream cheese from manufacturers have been insufficient.

“I’ve never been out of cream cheese for 30 years,” said Joseph Yemma, owner of F&H Dairies in Brooklyn, a dairy distributor for many of the city’s bagel stores. “There is no end in sight.”

In interviews with owners and workers of over 20 bagel and deli stores across town, many said they were exhausted, frustrated and rushing to find cream cheese after learning the shortage in the last few days.

Absolute Bagels has enough cream cheese to last until Thursday, Patta said. But employees at his typical supplier told him they couldn’t confirm when the next shipment would arrive. Although he planned to check with other vendors in the Bronx and Queens, he was still alarmed at what he heard.

“If we can’t find cream cheese I’m worried now, what are we going to do?” Mr. Patta said.

Several Absolute Bagels customers on Friday said if cream cheese was not available, they would be less likely to order a bagel.

“Probably not, no,” said one, James Giaquinto. His reasoning: “It’s an essential part of the bagel. “

The first cracks in the supply chain started to appear several months ago, some store owners said, when they started to run out of items like deli wrappers, Gatorade and mug lids. Coffee.

“These are very strange things and always the same story,” said Christopher Pugliese, owner of Tompkins Square Bagels in the East Village. “All of us backstage, when you go to the stores, we all have a hard time making things right. “

Mr Pugliese said he received a call from his dairy supplier on Thursday evening telling him the 800-pound order he was expecting on Friday would not arrive.

“I was like, ‘What am I going to do this weekend?'” Said Mr Pugliese. “Four people just told me they can’t get me cream cheese.”

After calling four more distributors, he said, he finally got his hands on a crate – except that instead of the usual giant bag of cream cheese, the box was full of individually wrapped three-pound sticks. .

Some bagel store owners take their cream cheese across state lines. On Friday afternoon, Frank Mattera, owner of Bagelsmith in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, said he planned to travel to New Jersey to buy himself 2,000 pounds of cream cheese.

Mr Mattera said he has been forced to take this route in recent weeks to meet demand for the thousands of bagels his store sells every day without raising prices.

“I’m going to jump in my truck and drive up north to Jersey and pick it up, but I usually wouldn’t have to go that far,” he said. “You make a phone call and it’s dropped off for you. “

And because the cream cheese that bagel stores use is in its rawest form, store owners can’t just top up their stash by running to the grocery store for a few jars.

“We also don’t want to keep opening 500 little packets of cream cheese to get what we need,” said Adrian Concha, general manager of Shelsky’s Brooklyn Bagels at Park Slope.

A supplier, said Mr Pugliese of Tompkins Square Bagels, had told him he would ask small dairy farmers to help fill the gaps. But, added Pugliese, the supplier was not optimistic about its ability to meet demand.

Phil Pizzano, a sales representative at Fischer Foods, one of New York State’s largest food distributors, said he had received hundreds of calls from panicked bagel store owners during of the past few weeks asking them if they have any cream cheese left to sell. .

He struggled to understand why the Philadelphia cream cheese coffers suddenly ran dry.

“You get answers on every level from every manufacturer,” he said.

Jenna Thornton, spokesperson for Kraft Heinz, said in a statement that the company is seeing increased demand for several of its products. To deal with the increases, she said, the company shipped 35% more product than last year to catering partners, including bagel stores.

“We continue to see high and sustained demand in a number of categories where we compete,” Thornton said in the release. “As more and more people continue to have breakfast at home and use cream cheese as an ingredient in easy desserts, we expect this trend to continue. “

Problems have arisen at every step of the supply chain that takes cream cheese from factories to the morning bagel, Pizzano said, including a labor shortage in the manufacturing sector that began in the past. heightened by the coronavirus pandemic, a shortage of truck drivers due to resistance to vaccination warrants and the scarcity of packaging supplies.

“If someone like us orders 1,000 cases, maybe you only get some,” said Pizzano. “Or maybe you order a truckload and just get a few pallets. “

The shortage of cream cheese, he said, also posed a challenge for bakeries, many of which expect to produce hundreds of cheesecakes and other cream cheese desserts for the holidays.

“Right now everyone in the market is scrambling to buy all the Kraft products they can,” he added. “It’s not just cream cheese.”

While the shortage appears to be the biggest crisis bagel stores are facing right now, several have also reported new problems finding meat, an essential ingredient in many breakfast sandwiches.

Kayla Ramon, a supervisor at Bo’s Bagels in Harlem, said the store had recently been able to stock up on cream cheese but was struggling to get Taylor Ham.

“Last week we started to feel the scarcity,” Ms. Ramon said. “Now, little by little, it’s taking its toll on us. “

Barney Greengrass, the popular appetizing store on the Upper West Side, struggles to find enough pastrami and beef tongue.

Gary Greengrass, the owner, said he had heard from bagel shop owners as far away as the Carolinas who had been unable to get cream cheese. Supply chain issues should be a wake-up call to Americans who take the complicated process for granted, he said.

“We don’t appreciate what’s behind everything to move things from source to store and across the country,” Mr. Greengrass said.

It remains to be seen whether the shortage will translate into higher prices or limits on orders, several store owners have said. But distributors said they don’t expect the problem to go away anytime soon.

Mr Pugliese of Tompkins Square Bagels said he had considered phasing out less popular cream cheese flavors like espresso for a few weeks. Others said they turned to lower quality suppliers.

“It sounds a little silly, talking about this like it’s some kind of huge crisis,” Pugliese said.

But, he noted, a cream cheese bagel is a New York institution and a “big deal” for many of its customers.

“Sunday bagels are sacred,” Mr. Pugliese said. “I hate feeling like I let people down.”

Precious fondren and Lola fadulu contributed report.


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