Anatomy of a cream cheese shortage

Why that shmear is costing you more

deepblue4you / E+

As if 2020’s toilet paper shortage and this year’s supply chain crisis were not bad enough, rumblings of a possible cream cheese shortage have come to area delis and catering services.

Cream cheese is “a traditional topping for a bagel, and it goes great with lox,” said Marc Attman, the owner of Attman’s Delicatessen in Potomac. “You never hear anyone say, ‘Give me a bagel with lox,’ everybody wants bagel, lox and cream cheese.”

While Attman said that his establishment had not yet experienced a shortage of cream cheese, he has heard of others dealing with it.

“Let’s put it this way, if you’re a small guy, if you do a small amount of business, you’re going to have a much harder time getting [cream cheese] than if you’re a big user,” said Attman. “And if the supplier has it, and you’re calling him up because your supplier doesn’t have it, the suppliers are in most cases going to sell it to the person that they do business with presently.

“Everybody is starting to save it up for their regular customers,” Attman added. “That’s what I’ve heard.”

Attman noted that while there isn’t any price gouging going on, the price of cream cheese has risen in a sense. Until the week of Dec. 6, it was possible to buy cream cheese from his supplier in 30-pound blocks. Now, however, it must be purchased in 10-pound blocks, which is 10 cents a pound more expensive than the now nonexistent 30-pound option.

On why the 30-pound block option is no longer available, Attman explained that there is a shortage of the containers and packaging materials used to place the cream cheese in, as production stopped during the pandemic and has not entirely gotten back up to where it had been pre-pandemic.

“It’s not the material, it’s the plastic buckets that it comes in,” Attman said. “You can’t get boxes anymore because they don’t have the glue for it. … So all the little things that people don’t think about, it’s not how much food is out there, it’s delivering the food and get[ting] it to you in a proper way.”

Attman was confident the widely reported shortage would not affect his business. Worst case scenario, he said, he and his staff would simply make their own cream cheese, as they previously did 30 years ago.

Attman also said he had no plans to allow the cream cheese issue to affect the prices his customers pay.

It’s “not my style to do that. … If something goes up a nickel or a dime, I don’t make a big deal about it,” he said.

That being said, Attman acknowledged that the cost of eating at a delicatessen had risen dramatically in a short period of time.

“A delicatessen is like 30 percent to 40 percent more this year than it was last year,” Attman said.

Attman noted, for example, that the price of cow tongue jumped up by 40 percent in just the last few weeks, which he attributed to a decline in the breeding of cows after the start of the pandemic, as well as increased demand from Korean restaurants.

Despite all this, Attman felt optimistic that the shortages of cream cheese and other items will improve before much longer.

“It’s going to get better soon,” Attman said. “I’ve been through this before. I’ve been through shortages plenty of times.”

Until the day comes again when there can be cream cheese for all, though, Attman recommended that consumers who have trouble finding it try substituting it with a slice of Muenster or Swiss cheese.

“You can just toast the bagel and put a little slice of [Muenster] cheese on there, it goes very well, and you put the slice of lox on there,” Attman said. “It tastes very good.”

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