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Why is there a cream cheese shortage in NYC when you can still find it in grocery stores?

Like all supply-chain fiascos, the answer is complicated.

Why is there a cream cheese shortage in NYC when you can still find it in grocery stores?
[Photo: Cavan Images/Getty]

In recent days, New Yorkers, facing a sudden cream cheese shortage that’s being reported everywhere, have started asking if they’ve not suffered enough already. Some of the city’s top bagel shops say they’re at risk of running out of supplies in mere days: Zabar’s is low, Tompkins Square Bagels is scrambling, Bagelsmith is driving to New Jersey, Absolute Bagels runs out tomorrow, and Pick A Bagel has enough to last just a few more days. You may be wondering what exactly is going on, and when you should start to panic about the prospects of your own morning schmear.

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The dearth appears fairly localized, for now

Affected parties are really “just” bagel shops, it seems. And while some New York proprietors are telling media they hear bagel shops as far away as the Carolinas are exhausting their cream cheese supply, the lack of sustained outrage elsewhere in the country suggests maybe the problem hasn’t disrupted breakfasts in other bagel-obsessed locales like Seattle or Detroit. (Yet.) Also, there have been few reports of grocery store shortages in New York City and beyond, meaning, before freaking out, it’s probably worth checking the supermarket.

Is there something different about bagel-shop cream cheese?

In fact, yes—it’s typically food service-grade. Think a thousand-pound pallet of unwhipped product, which bagel shops use as a base. They may mix in some scallions or maple syrup or strawberries, and these become their own custom spreads. These hunks are different from the small tubs you find in the grocery store, typically produced on a different assembly line, maybe by a different manufacturer, and following a different supply chain.

Meanwhile, Kraft Heinz, maker of the Philadelphia brand, tells the New York Times it’s seeing demand spike lately for multiple food-service industry products. It doesn’t say why but did explain that it’s had to ship 35% more of these products than it did last year to accommodate the spike. In a statement, Kraft notes: “As more people continue to eat breakfast at home and use cream cheese as an ingredient in easy desserts, we expect to see this trend continue.”

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A packaging-supply problem?

Or you could blame an ongoing packaging-supplies problem, which started months ago (but that you probably hadn’t noticed).

Kraft simply leaves it at demand outpacing supplies. But since this past spring, reports have surfaced about manufacturers like Kraft running out of the plastic used to make cream cheese tubs. Local suppliers now tell CBS New York that this materials debacle is still an issue. “Usually this is just wall-to-wall bulk cream cheese, all along the racks and along the floor, and it’s just nothing,” Joe Yemma, coowner of F&H Dairies, which supplies more than 100 bagel shops, tells the station. “This is zero, zero cases.”

Why New York?

But America has lots of bagel shops, you say. Why are New York’s running out, specifically? Maybe because they use too much? Several years ago, food writer Max Falkowitz famously did an investigation on the average amount of cream cheese found on various, popular New York City bagels. He found cholesterol-raising levels at many establishments: Murray’s Bagels and Absolute Bagels used almost 2 ounces, while the schmear at Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company was nearly half a cup.

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So what can you do if you’re just dead set on enjoying New York City bagel shop cream cheese? Murray’s Bagels, a classic New York institution, offers nationwide shipping—including local delivery, New Yorkers—and right now you can still purchase 13 different spreads by the pound from its online store.

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