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How a Cream Cheese Shortage Is Affecting NYC Bagel Shops

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Zabar’s is running out. Tompkins Square Bagels is on sticks. Pick-a-Bagel only has a few days left in stock.

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

“This is bad. This is very bad,” said Pedro Aguilar, manager at the Pick-a-Bagel chain, which has multiple locations in Manhattan. On Friday afternoon, Mr. Aguilar said he only had enough cream cheese for Monday.

Nick Patta, who spent 11 years at Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side, said that for the first time he could remember, his usual supplier in Queens had run out of the store’s go-to cream cheese brand.

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

Supply chain problems have plagued the United States for months, leaving a scarcity of everything from cars to running shoes. In Alaska, residents struggle to get their hands on winter coats.

Now the New York bagel purveyors are starting to feel the effects in a sudden and surprising development that has them scrambling to find and hoard as much cream cheese as possible.

Scott Goldshine, Zabar’s general manager, estimated Friday that he had enough for 10 days.

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

New York bagel sellers go through thousands of pounds of cream cheese every few weeks. The recipe for the beloved spread, which according to the Kraft Heinz Company originated in New York sometime in the 1870s, is pretty 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.

The pallets aren’t filled with the Philadelphia cream cheese found on most supermarket shelves: The raw product that goes to bagel stores is unprocessed and unbeaten, bagel makers said, who use it as a base for their own creations. Without that foundation, they said, the spreads just won’t taste or feel the same, and customers will notice.

But for about three weeks now, dairy suppliers say, the cream cheese orders they’ve placed with manufacturers have been falling short.

“I haven’t had cream cheese in 30 years,” said Joseph Yemma, the owner of Brooklyn-based F&H Dairies, a distributor of dairy products for many of the city’s bagel shops. “There is no end in sight.”

In interviews with owners and employees of about 20 bagel shops and delis in the city, many said they were exhausted, frustrated and rushed to find cream cheese after learning about the shortage in recent days.

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

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

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

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

The first cracks in the supply chain started appearing several months ago, some store owners said, as they began to run low on items such as deli wrappers, Gatorade and coffee cup lids.

“It’s been really weird stuff and always the same story,” said Christopher Pugliese, the owner of Tompkins Square Bagels in the East Village. “We all have behind the scenes, when you go into the stores, we all struggle to put things together.”

Mr Pugliese said he received a call on Thursday evening from his dairy supplier telling him the £800 order he expected 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 other distributors, he said, he finally got his hands on a briefcase — except instead of the usual giant bag of cream cheese, the box was packed with individually wrapped three-pound sticks.

Some bagel shop owners are taking their cream cheese clearance across state lines. On Friday afternoon, Frank Mattera, a Bagelsmith owner in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, said he planned to drive to New Jersey to pick up 2,000 pounds of cream cheese himself.

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

“I’ll jump in my truck and drive to North Jersey to pick it up, but normally I wouldn’t have to go that far,” he said. “You call and it is delivered to you.”

And because the cream cheese bagel shops use is in its most raw form, retailers can’t simply replenish their stock by running to the grocery store for a few tubs.

“We also don’t want to keep opening 500 small packets of cream cheese to get what we need,” said Adrian Concha, the general manager of Shelsky’s Brooklyn Bagels, a multi-location chain.

One supplier, Mr Pugliese of Tompkins Square Bagels, told him he would ask smaller dairies to fill in the gaps. But, Mr Pugliese added, the supplier was not optimistic it would be able to meet demand.

Phil Pizzano, a sales representative at Fischer Foods, one of the largest food distributors in upstate New York, said he had received hundreds of calls in recent weeks from panicked bagel store owners asking if there was any cream cheese left to sell.

He struggles to understand why the Philadelphia cream cheese greenhouse has suddenly dried up.

“You get answers across the board from every manufacturer,” he said.

Jenna Thornton, a spokeswoman for Kraft Heinz, said in a statement that the company saw a spike in demand for several of its products. To accommodate the increases, she said, the company had shipped 35 percent more products than last year to foodservice partners, including bagel shops.

“We continue to see increased and sustained demand in a number of categories in which we compete,” Ms Thornton said in the statement. “As 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 cropped up at every point in the supply chain bringing cream cheese from factories to the morning bagel, Mr Pizzano said, including labor shortages in the manufacturing sector that started at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a lack of truck drivers due to resistance to vaccine mandates and a scarcity of packaging supplies.

“If someone like us orders 1000 cases, you might only get a portion,” Pizzano said. “Or maybe you order a truckload and only get a few pallets.”

The cream cheese shortage, he said, also presented a challenge to bakeries, many of which expect to make hundreds of cheesecakes and other cream cheese-based desserts for the holiday season.

“Everyone on the market right now is trying 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 shops are facing right now, several also reported new difficulties finding meat, an essential ingredient in many breakfast sandwiches.

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

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

Barney Greengrass, the popular Upper West Side tasty shop, struggles to find enough pastrami and beef tongue.

Gary Greengrass, the owner, said he had heard of bagel store owners as far as the Carolinas who couldn’t get cream cheese. The supply chain issues should be a wake-up call for Americans who take the complicated process for granted, he said.

“We don’t appreciate what goes into moving things from source to store and across the country,” said Mr. green grass.

It remains to be seen whether the shortage will translate into higher prices or limits on orders, several store owners said. But distributors said they didn’t expect the problem to resolve itself any time soon.

Mr. Pugliese of Tompkins Square Bagels said he spent a few weeks thinking about eliminating less popular flavors of cream cheese, such as espresso. Others said they had turned to lower quality suppliers.

“It sounds a bit silly to talk about this like it’s a massive crisis,” said Mr. pugliese.

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

“Sunday bagels are sacred,” Mr. Pugliese said. “I hate to feel like I’ve let people down.”

Precious long distance racing and Lola Fadulu reporting contributed.

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