Bagel Businesses Navigate Schmear Shortage

Alexandra (left) is a white woman with long, dark hair wearing an apron next to Jacob Cohen, a white man wearing a hat and black shirt. Both are holding bagels in front of their eyes.
Kismet Bagels co-owners Alexandra and Jacob Cohen have called 10 different distributors to find a reliable supply of cream cheese. | Photo by Mike Prince

One can’t talk about cream cheese without bringing up the City of Brotherly Love for which a popular brand is named.

And these days, Philadelphia bagel purveyors can’t talk about Philadelphia Cream Cheese without bringing up their notable lack of the stuff.

The national cream cheese shortage, the latest casualty of global supply chain issues, has hit Philadelphia, and local schmear sellers are feeling the effects.

“The price started creeping up just a bit, and then in the last month or so, it’s been incredibly difficult to even secure cream cheese at all,” Kismet Bagels co-owner Jacob Cohen said.

Cohen’s usual cream cheese supplier hasn’t delivered cream cheese to the wholesale bakery in two weeks. He did not disclose the distributors of the brand of cream cheese he buys.

“It’s been wild,” Cohen said. “I’ve made probably 10 different phone calls to different purveyors and suppliers, just trying to find anything I can get, which I think everybody’s doing.”

Kismet Bagels isn’t alone; Hymie’s Deli in Merion Station and Schmear It, with locations in University City and Center City, have also had to adapt to the shortage.

“One of our primary distributors is Cisco, and my rep said that yes, indeed, their numbers were concerning,” Schmear It owner David Fine said.

Fine, who sells about 200 pounds of schmear a week, started to grow more troubled by the cream cheese shortage when family and friends started texting him several weeks ago about the shortage in New York. Even last month, the shortage was not yet being felt in Philly, Fine said.

“Perhaps it’s one of the better times that New York was a little bit ahead of us,” Fine said. “Because it gave me a head start to reach out to our distributors and ask them if there was a real thing that was going to, in fact, be affecting us.”

Hymie’s owner Louis Barson became suspicious of the shortage after The New York Times reported that Zabar’s was having trouble sourcing its schmear on Dec. 4, a canary in the coal mine for Jewish-style delis.

Barson said that cream cheese companies and distributors are prioritizing supplying cream cheese for retail purposes and then for wholesale, which is why bagel sellers may feel under pressure. 

“In the order of importance of the food chain, the Giants, the Wegmans, the ACMEs of the world are going to get first dibs on their allocations,” he said. “Then the Zabars are probably next — the big guys — and then the Hymie’s guys.”

A picture of a bagel cross section, complete with a thick layer of cream cheese and lox
Hymie’s owner Louis Barson can taste the difference in brands of cream cheese. | Courtesy of Hymie’s Deli

According to Jenna Thornton, brand public relations and media director of Kraft Heinz, the Philadelphia Cream Cheese parent company, the foodservice demand for cream cheese has increased 75% in 2021 compared to 2020, largely due to customers feeling more comfortable leaving their house to visit bakeries and restaurants.

Because of the growing demand, Barson has paid 20% more for Philadelphia Cream Cheese.

With that demand putting a strain on production, businesses serving the product are put in a precarious position: try to source their preferred brand with mixed success or buy a cheaper brand with greater reliability.

For Cohen, Fine and Barson, their decision was unanimous: always buy the higher-quality product.

“We take a lot of pride in what we do, and I think everyone has fallen in love with us because of the quality that we put out there,” Cohen said. “I wouldn’t want to mess with that.”

Though Barson said most customers wouldn’t be able to taste the difference in the schmear if Hymie’s were to switch brands, the difference to him is night and day.

“The consistency is not as cheesy, and it’s a little more gummy,” Barson said.

However, bagel businesses believe that they likely won’t have to make any tough decisions about cream cheese. Due to the product’s three-month shelf life, they have stockpiled cases of cream cheese. Others have switched suppliers or just waited out weeks when there’s no cream cheese being distributed.

And while Barson said bagel businesses “have got to play the game right now” regarding supply chain shortages, other local businesses are working to create more sustainable solutions to the cream cheese crisis.

Yoav Perry, the founder of Perrystead Dairy, has developed his own Real Philly Schmear, which he has begun selling to local shops like Herman’s Coffee in South Philadelphia and Di Bruno Bros.

The Israeli-American cheese virtuoso sources milk from Pennsylvania grass-fed cows 40 minutes from his Kensington facility. Because of the facility’s location on Interstate 95, Perrystead Dairy products can more easily be distributed up and down the East Coast.

A stack of half-pint containers filled with Perrystead's Real Philly Schmear
Perrystead Dairy in Kensington produces its own schmear. |
Courtesy of Perrystead Dairy

“We can, with a national distributor, have it all the way from Maine to Virginia Beach within 24 hours,” Perry said. “And we’re talking three days after the milk arrives.”

But the local sourcing of dairy comes at a price for Perry. He’s been slower to expand because of the cost of high-quality dairy, a calculated decision for Perry, who believes that the chemicals and cheap milk used by large, commercial dairy companies is yielding an inferior product.

“We have to do right by the farmers,” Perry said. “Currently, cream cheese is sold too cheaply, and we’re seeing the results of that.”

The cream cheese shortage has opened some business owners’ eyes to this issue, however. Though Fine is happy to stick with Philadelphia Cream Cheese, which he’s used for the past eight years, if he needed to switch brands, he’d think beyond the other common national brands.

“If I had to switch from Philadelphia, then I would definitely have a conversation with the local folks first,” Fine said.; 215-832-0741


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