The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Supply-chain issues and a cyberattack: Why your bagel’s cream cheese might be spread a little thin

Cream cheese is loaded onto a bagel at Pick a Bagel in New York on Dec. 6. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The list of theorized reasons for the Great Cream Cheese Shortage of 2021 reads like a Mad Libs game for a pandemic-weary United States navigating compounding crises.

Labor shortages and supply-chain issues. A ransomware attack. Water rationing.

And perhaps the most prescient potential factor: Malcontent Americans desperate for comfort food as a new coronavirus variant sparks alarm, cases surge and a second holiday season of testing and masks gets underway.

A schmear shortage has befallen the United States in recent weeks, albeit unevenly. In New York City, bagel shops report being hit particularly hard, with some scaling back usually hefty dollops slapped on cinnamon raisin and sesame. The restaurant chain Junior’s recently halted production of its classic New York-style cheesecake three times amid the shortage. Nonetheless, many grocery stores seem to have plenty of supply.

The shortage of cream cheese is the latest supply issue to hit during the coronavirus pandemic. First toilet paper and cleaning products were hard to find. Then chicken and lumber.

But the cream-cheese shortage appears to have hit a particular nerve, capping a year of dashed hopes for a return to normal with another obstacle to enjoying even the tiniest of indulgences.

Help Desk reporter Heather Kelly looks at what might cause holiday shopping headaches and how to avoid them. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Omicron spreading rapidly in U.S. and could bring punishing wave as soon as January, CDC warns

Which hypothesized factors are contributing to the tangy dairy product’s supply issues remains uncertain. A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this month suggested that logistics bottlenecks, labor shortages and a lack of adequate supplies at manufacturing facilities may be to blame. Others have speculated that a struggle over water supply in Lowville, N.Y., home to a Kraft Heinz cream-cheese plant, may have added to the problem.

The factory there was using most of the community’s water supply for a few days this past summer, said Paul Denise, superintendent of public works for the tiny village near the Canadian border.

“We can only pull out of our watershed 1.5 million gallons a day,” he said. “So when Kraft pulls 1.3, that doesn’t leave a lot of water … for the village.”

That number has declined after Lowville began imposing a surcharge if the company used more than 900,000 gallons of water a day on average in a week or over 1.1 million in a single day. Kraft, whose Philadelphia brand is the country’s largest cream-cheese producer, has since used about 800,000 gallons a day, said Denise, who believes there is no connection between the decrease in water usage and the national cream-cheese shortage.

Tips for baking and cooking your way through the cream cheese shortage

Jenna Thornton, a spokeswoman for Kraft, also disputed the water usage theory, pointing instead to strong retail demand — up 18 percent from 2019, though steady over the last year. She attributed the rise to an increase in the number of people eating breakfast at home and making easy desserts like cheesecake. Demand from bagel shops and other food providers has risen even more sharply, up 75 percent compared with a year ago.

“As consumers feel more comfortable leaving their homes & commuting into their offices, we’ve seen food service demand, such as bagel shops, skyrocket this past year,” Thornton said in a statement to The Washington Post.

The average person in the country has eaten cream cheese roughly once a month for the past few years — primarily at breakfast, said Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst at the NPD Group, a market research company. He is skeptical that an increase in demand alone explains the shortage, noting that the splurge on comfort foods during the days of strict lockdown in early 2020 has waned as more people slip out of joggers and back into work pants.

“I think the theme now is mitigated indulgence,” Seifer said. "‘I still want my indulgence, but help me not overdo it.’”

Restaurants and takeout companies, however, are another story. At Junior’s, sales are up 44 percent from last year, when many of the other restaurants that sell the brand’s famous cheesecakes were closed, owner Alan Rosen said. The company’s grocery and mail-order businesses have also grown, he said.

“I think we’ve become a little bit indulgent in our home time,” Rosen said. “Some people are joking about the covid 15, but I think people are just appreciating comfort food a little more.”

Junior’s has had to pause production several times recently when a total of roughly 120,000 pounds of cream cheese were not delivered on time, Rosen said. Since cream cheese can’t be frozen, the company can bake only when it has a fresh supply.

The cost of delay: How your holiday shopping cart explains the damaged global supply chain

In reality, several issues appear to be contributing to the shortage, according to Christopher Wolf, a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell University: a lack of workers to staff the usual shifts at manufacturing plants; a scarcity of truck drivers to transport milk from farms to factories and the finished products to their destinations; and lagging production of cream-cheese packaging. Disruptions at a Schreiber Foods plant from a cyberattack in October also may be a factor, he said.

Supply-chain issues have become so common this year that Wolf feels about them the way he feels when someone calls a weather disaster a “black swan” event. Once it happens enough times, he said, it is no longer unusual.

“At some point, it’s not the perfect storm,” Wolf said. “It’s the new weather pattern, right?”

Perhaps to stay in sweet-toothed customers’ good graces, Kraft launched a promotion this week to reimburse some people $20 for making or buying a non-cheesecake dessert during the holiday season. On social media, people joked about the missing spread.

“I have half a brick of genuine Kraft Philadelphia cream cheese in my fridge and i’m open to interesting trades,” one person tweeted.

Drisana Hughes, 27, was taken by surprise Wednesday when the toasted bagel that she ordered from her usual store in Brooklyn appeared with roughly one-third its typical amount of lox schmear. It tasted, she said, like plain bread.

“It’s usually, I take a bite, the cream cheese is overflowing. I have to move the cream cheese to another location to eat it,” Hughes said. “Today was like, nothing fell off of it. Parts of it, I can barely taste it. They definitely put a lot less.”

Hughes, who works in politics, said her bagel orders have become more frequent during the pandemic. Working from home has made it easier for her to grab a poppy-seed or cinnamon raisin bagel two or three days each week, especially as the cold weather makes her crave comfort food.

Luckily for Hughes, the grocery stores near her are well-stocked with tubs of cream cheese. So the next time her bagel-store order comes with too little schmear, she said, she may be prepared with her own supply.

Read more:

Tornadoes killed her grandparents. Eight strangers helped her find their photos.

Most Americans support religious exemptions to vaccination but say they’re overused, survey finds

States are already preparing for a possible future without Roe v. Wade