There’s nothing quite like a good New York bagel with cream cheese. First, you bite through the crisp outer crust; then you move on to the chewy, bubbly crumb; and finally, of course, everything is overpowered by an enormous mouthful of cold white goop.
Wait, no. That last part is gross. And yet it’s sadly typical. New York bagel places are giving us way too much cream cheese, and it makes no sense.
I’ve puzzled over this ever since I moved to Manhattan 10 years ago for college. Weekend afternoons often found me on a bench outside the Upper West Side stalwart Absolute Bagels, awkwardly cupping my bagel in the wax paper it was served in, trying not to drop it while I scraped away globs of excess cream cheese. For a long time, I wasn’t sure if others went through the same annoying ritual, so I recently started asking around. I’ve brought it up with friends, neighbors, and strangers at bars. I’ve asked young black women and old Jewish men. While my methods are far from scientific, my research strongly suggests that most New Yorkers agree: The cream cheese is too damn much.
Just how much are we talking about? Employees at a few Manhattan shops told me they add a quarter-pound, which is insane. A representative of Ess-a-Bagel, the East Side institution, said staff there are told to give about 3 ounces—only slightly less insane. In an article for Serious Eats last year, Max Falkowitz weighed samples from six New York City stores and found a range from 0.7 ounces, at Black Seed in Brooklyn, to 3.9 ounces, at Brooklyn Bagel in Manhattan. Absolute Bagel came in at 2.5 ounces, and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s favorite, Bagel Hole, served 1.7 ounces. Even those mid-range numbers are a lot. I ordered an everything bagel with “just a little cream cheese” at Bagel Hole a few weeks ago, and still had to tell the guy to scrape some off.
My concern here is not really health, though at 100 calories per ounce, all that cream cheese can’t be good for you. It’s taste. A good New York bagel doesn’t need 3 ounces of cream cheese any more than it needs 3 ounces of butter.
Cream cheese is a spread, not a sandwich filling. This wisdom is so deeply ingrained in American Jewish culture, to which we owe the bagel, that there’s a Yiddish term for the proper portion: schmear. The word itself evokes restraint, its rough schm- sound reminiscent of the knife’s halting scrape. (Compare it with, say, slather, whose pliant consonants evoke a smoothly spread dollop of sunscreen.) Or as Marc Fintz, business development director of Davidovich Bakery in Queens and a fellow cream cheese curmudgeon, put it in an email: “A cream cheese portion should be a shmear. It should be enough to bring out the delicious taste of a traditionally cured bagel. It is a complement to the taste—NOT THE TASTE!” Fintz recommends a modest half-ounce of cream cheese for a bagel with lox, and perhaps up to three-quarters of an ounce without lox.
That many places put six times that amount on one bagel is more than a culinary faux pas; it’s an economic mystery. Cream cheese is hardly the only example of outsize portions in American restaurants, but it’s unique in that it actually makes the meal less delicious. I know I don’t need all the chips I’m served at a Mexican place, but I want them; only an act of willpower will keep me from eating them. I’ll pick some pastrami off a Jewish deli sandwich so I can fit the thing in my mouth, but I’ll polish it off once the bread is gone. Cream cheese is different. I can’t think of any other food that is routinely served in portions that people actually dislike. Given the notoriously low margins of the restaurant industry, why would businesses regularly give away extra product that customers don’t want—that, indeed, they scrape off like barnacles?
“You want customers to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth,” said Alyse Jacobson, a representative of Ess-a-Bagel. “They could always scrape it off, but once you leave here, you’ve got what you’ve got. Yes, that’s wasteful and that’s unfortunate, but we’d rather customers think, ‘I’ve gotten too much’ than say, ‘I’ve gotten skimped.’ ”
Fintz had a more cynical explanation: The excess spread is there to “justify the upcharge” of a bagel with cream cheese—typically about a dollar more than a bagel by itself.
In fact, “justifying the upcharge” and “getting your money’s worth” are two spins on the same idea: The mountain of cream cheese is intended to make the price seem reasonable. But is it really true that New Yorkers would balk at paying a dollar for just a schmear, if that’s what they prefer? Everyone knows restaurants overcharge for fixings—no one thinks lettuce and tomato really cost 75 cents. Personally, I would rather pay the same price for the amount I want and skip the hassle of the scrape-off. And since bagel places seem to be serving many multiples more than customers want, they could preserve their profit margins by charging a little less for a lot less cream cheese. Let the minority who are happy with the status quo ask for extra.
One thing I learned in my research is that there’s a massive disconnect between buyers and sellers. Bagel purveyors generally seemed flabbergasted by the idea that the average customer might prefer less cream cheese. “You want more cream cheese?” said one Israeli bagel-shop manager, after I asked him over the phone why his store insisted on giving me too much. “I’ll give you more cream cheese. You just have to ask.” Then he hung up.
Jacobson, at Ess-a-Bagel, acknowledged that some people prefer less cream cheese, but was skeptical that they were in the majority. “If we got feedback from our customers that they’re not happy, they’d like a little less cream cheese, then obviously we’re going to listen to our consumers,” she said. “But so far that’s not the kind of feedback we’re getting.”
In other words, New Yorkers may think they’re getting too much cream cheese, but the message isn’t getting through. Why? How hard is it to ask for less?
Kind of hard, actually. For one thing, it doesn’t always do the trick. Because the default portion is so huge, I still end up scraping some off—so why bother? And in the harried environment of a bagel shop, where the employees are busy and often not native English speakers, the fine details of one’s order often seem unlikely to make it to whoever is actually preparing the bagel.
But the biggest barrier is psychological. The other day I was talking about the cream cheese glut with a friend who works as a waitress. “You’ve never worked in the service industry, have you?” she asked. To her it was obvious why servers would give so much cream cheese: They hate having to deal with customers who come back asking for more.
My friend’s point was that I must not have considered how annoying special requests are to servers. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Like most (though not all) New Yorkers, I’ve internalized service employees’ contempt for nonstandard orders. Despite their reputation for brashness, what New Yorkers really pride themselves on is frictionless navigation of the city’s mad intensity. And asking for less is still a special request. Even the three seconds it takes to say “seriously, just a really little bit of cream cheese” feels like enough time to incur the annoyance of the staff and the people in line behind you.
Bagel shops can’t be blamed for giving us what they think we want. So to the New Yorkers reading this, I end with a challenge. If you agree that our wonderful bagels are being ruined by outrageous heaps of cream cheese, it’s time to let the people serving you know. Just don’t be rude about it. This isn’t a smear campaign—it’s a schmear campaign.