The End of the World: The Cream Cheese Shortage
As the pandemic has continued, supply chain bottlenecks have limited our access to everyday products. The supply of anything from cars to breakfast cereal has been disrupted by material scarcity, increased freight prices, changing consumer attitudes, and port congestion. While the lack of items like car parts and computer batteries has taken a toll on consumers, possibly the most frightening supply shock of all has been the NYC cream cheese shortage.
There is nothing in the world quite like a New York bagel, known
for its crispy outer layer and soft interior slathered with butter, cream cheese, lox, and more. New York City residents are intense bagel lovers, and many depend on their daily bagel with cream cheese to get them through the day. Some New Yorkers would argue that the most important component of their morning bagel is the cream cheese, whether it be the popular Temp Tee or the classic Philadelphia. So, when a sudden shortage of cream cheese struck NYC bagel shops at the beginning of December, the balance of the city was thrown off and its culture was threatened.
Absolute Bagels is one of New York’s most popular bagel shops. Similar to many other bagel shops, it acquires its cream cheese from their go-to brand, Philadelphia, and then mixes in their signature additions, which are then blended.
“If we cannot find cream cheese, I worry now, what are we going to do?”
At the beginning of December, Absolute Bagel workers took a trip to their go-to cream cheese shop and found the shelves completely empty. Without their fundamental ingredient, the store couldn’t satisfy their customers as they had before. With only a few days’ stock remaining, Absolute Bagels almost taste the oncoming chaos. Nick Patta, a long-term worker at Absolute Bagels, desperately told the New York Times, “If we cannot find cream cheese, I worry now, what are we going to do?”
So what caused the sudden shortage of cream cheese? One explanation is that more and more New Yorkers are eating breakfast at home, spiking the number of people buying large tubs of Philadelphia Whipped and other variations of the magic cheese for their homes. The demand for cream cheese has gone up since March 2020, presumably due to at-home breakfasts. In addition to the change in demand, we have seen labor shortages in the industry, a lack of truck drivers (due in part to resistance to vaccine mandates), and a scarcity of proper packaging supplies.
At the start of December 2021, bagel shops began to feel the effects of the shortage as they ordered truckloads worth of cream cheese and only received a few packages worth. A few weeks later, the shortage completely wiped some bagel shops out. These shops began making new bagel sandwiches with strange combinations of bagel toppings to draw in their typical flow of customers. This tactic ended up failing, as shop owners found that customers wouldn’t order a bagel at all if there was no cream cheese in the picture.
It’s not only bagel shops and their consumers that are suffering from the drastic shortage. City residents who rely on a morning bagel with cream cheese from the comfort of their home have been just as dramatically deprived. “When I walked into Fairway only to find not a single cream cheese carton in the entire store, I knew the world as we know it had ended,” Sophie Perlson, a discouraged New York resident told me. She added that there was a strange energy to the city in early December and that everything was noticeably off for over a week.
The cream cheese shortage was, overall, a devastating occurrence for city residents and their bagel suppliers. Christopher Pugliese, the owner of Tompkins Square Bagels in the East Village, admitted to the Times, “It sounds kind of silly, talking about this like it’s some kind of huge crisis.” However, Pugliese understands more than most how important bagels are to the average New Yorker. He added, “Sunday bagels are sacred. I hate feeling like I’ve let people down.” Luckily for Pugliese and the rest of NYC’s cream cheese fans and suppliers, the shortage has mostly passed over in the new year. Tubs of Philadelphia and Temp Tee cream cheese are returning to grocery store shelves, and most bagel shops can once again offer fresh bagels with cream cheese to their customers. Suppliers and consumers alike are very thankful for the return to normalcy; it’s unclear how much longer New York City would have lasted under cream cheese-deprived circumstances.