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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Like plain slice and now it's a fucking fro-yo place, the phrase "just a schmear" is a dead giveaway for an individual's native New Yorkishness. Whether you were born deep in Brooklyn or moved to the city last month, "just a schmear" connotes a sense of taste and discernment. It's the shibboleth of a citywide society of bagel connoisseurs.

For the uninitiated, "just a schmear" is what you tell your bagel guy when he's about to slap a half pound of cream cheese on your bagel. "Just a schmear" means no, I'd like less than a quarter inch slab of cream cheese for breakfast. Because just a thin schmear is all a bagel really needs.

New York bagel shops are notoriously generous with their cream cheese. But you pay dearly for it: adding cream cheese doubles—or more—the cost of your bagel. That's true even if you ask for only a schmear; there's no discount for being kind to your cholesterol levels.

The bagelnomics add up. If you bought a bagel with cream cheese every day for a whole year, that's something on the order of $800. Which is why I've always wondered if there's a cheaper way to get your cream cheese fix. After all, bagel shops will gladly sell you a half pound of cream cheese to spread yourself, a handy feature for setting up bagel brunch spreads at home. So what if you bought your cream cheese on the side and spread it on yourself? Would you save or lose money by doing so?

The Research

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We set out to six of the city's most popular bagel shops to see what their definition of a schmear meant. They are:

We're not saying these are the best bagels in the city, though some of them are; they're simply included for their popularity and the size range of their bagels. (However horrible Dunkin's bagels are, they're the inexplicable breakfast of choice for thousands of New Yorkers every day.)

Over three separate visits to each shop we ordered a plain bagel with cream cheese, noting prices for a plain bagel, one with cream cheese, and a half pound of the shop's cream cheese. We then weighed the bagels whole and with the cream cheese scraped off to see just how much cream cheese each shop schmears on. At most bagel shops the bagel's and cream cheese's weights were pretty consistent, making it easy to take averages of each shop's typical schmears.

Bagel HoleDunkin'AbsoluteB'klyn BagelMurray'sBlack Seed
Bagel Price$1.80$2.10$2.25$2.60$2.75$3
Cream Cheese Price (1/2 LB.)$4.09$5.50$3.90$3.90$3.90$6
Weight: Total Bagel159 grams180 grams200 grams304 grams184 grams121 grams
Weight: Just Cream Cheese48 grams60 grams71 grams110 grams52 grams19 grams

From these numbers were able to calculate some interesting values: the premium you pay for ordering cream cheese on your bagel, how many bagel's worth of schmears there are in a half pound of cream cheese, and how that price premium compares to buying cream cheese separately and schmearing an equal amount on a bagel yourself.*

* We assume that you'd schmear on just as much as the bagel shop so we can isolate the premium you pay for having the service rendered in-store.

For instance, a plain bagel at Murray's costs you $1.25. Add a $1.50 cream cheese premium and you're up to $2.75, compared to paying $3.90 for a half pound of cream cheese (227 grams) at the shop. An average schmear of cream cheese at Murray's weighs 52 grams (about 1.8 ounces), which means each half pound of cream cheese you buy can schmear 4.36 bagels for a cost of 89 cents each. That's a savings of 61 cents a bagel, or $2.64 for every half pound of cream cheese.

Bagel HoleDunkin'AbsoluteB'klyn BagelMurray'sBlack Seed
CC Premium$0.85$1.05$1.25$1.40$1.50$1.50
Price per schmear$0.87$1.45$1.23$1.89$0.89$0.51
Savings per Bagel-$0.02-$0.40$0.02-$0.49$0.61$0.99
Annual Savings-$5.70-$144.91$8.55-$177.34$221.12$360.85

What if you bought a bagel from Murray's every day for a year? By spreading your own cream cheese you'd save a whopping $221.12. And that's if you schmeared on a regulation Murray's amount of cream cheese, which to my taste is way too much. Schmear on less and the savings keep multiplying.

Though a schmear's weight doesn't predict your total savings. At hip new Montreal-meets-New-York-style Black Seed, a schmear of cream cheese is just that—a schmear of 19 grams, a mere 16% of the sandwich's total weight. But when you consider a cream cheese price premium of 100% ($1.50 for a plain bagel vs. $3 for adding cream cheese) and the higher price of the shop's cream cheese, your per-bagel savings for schmearing your own cream cheese are nearly a dollar.

You don't always save money when buying cream cheese on the side. In fact, we found an even three-way split. At Murray's and Black Seed, you save a good amount of money by schmearing your own cream cheese. But at longtime favorites Absolute and Bagel Hole, you pretty much break even. And at Brooklyn Bagel Bagel & Coffee Company and Dunkin' Donuts you actually lose money by ordering your cream cheese on the side: 49 cents and 40 cents per bagel, respectively.

Crunching the Numbers

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[Graphs: Matt Hoffman]

If bagel shops vary in their cream cheese premiums, is there a foolproof way for us to maximize our savings?

For starters, there are a lot of wrong strategies.

A shop's overall prices (including the cost of adding cream cheese to a plain bagel) don't predict your savings. Bagel with cream cheese prices ranged from $1.80 (Bagel Hole) to $3 (Black Seed), and cream cheese prices from $3.90 (Absolute, Brooklyn Bagel, and Murray's) to $6 (Black Seed). But there's no savings trend with respect to price alone.

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Nor can you correlate savings with weight: neither the bagel nor the amount of cream cheese a shop schmears on. True, Black Seed's bagel with cream cheese, the slimmest in our data pool at a mere 121 grams, showed the highest savings for buying cream cheese separately, and Brooklyn Bagel's massive 304-gram softballs punish you the most for ordering cream cheese on the side. But the middle values don't pan out along a pattern.

If you scrape off the cream cheese and weigh it separately, you'll find a slight inverse correlation: the more cream cheese on your bagel, the less you save by schmearing it yourself. But the trend is pretty weak. Look at each bagel's cream cheese ratio—the percentage of a bagel's weight that comes from its cream cheese—and you'll find a similar, slightly stronger correlation, but hardly what you'd call definitive.

There's only one pattern that predicts how much you stand to gain or lose by ordering cream cheese on the side: what I call the price per schmear, or the price of a shop's half pound of cream cheese divided by the number of bagels it can schmear. That is, the higher your price per schmear, the less you generally save by adding cream cheese on your own.

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This makes sense. Price per schmear is the only figure that factors in money and weight: the price of a bagel with cream cheese, a half pound of cream cheese, and just how much cream cheese goes on each bagel.

The neighborhood of $1 seems to be the break-even point—87 cents in the case of Bagel Hole and $1.23 for Absolute. Go over a buck and you're likely better off ordering cream cheese on your bagel, but if the price per schmear is lower than a dollar, you may be better off ordering your cream cheese on the side.

The system isn't perfect—the price per schmear at Murray's is 89 cents, almost identical to Bagel Hole's despite wildly different savings outcomes—but it's a better bet than any other. And all you need to calculate it for your bagel shop is the weight of a schmear of cream cheese, the premium you pay for ordering cream cheese on your bagel, and the price of a half pound of that shop's cream cheese. Of course from there you're only one step away from determining your real savings—just subtract the price per schmear from the cream cheese premium.

The Big Upside

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But the real reason to care about price per schmear is the bigger point it illustrates about buying cream cheese separately: it allows you to fully capitalize on only ordering "just a schmear."

If I ask the bagel guy on my way to work for just a schmear, I still get charged full price. But if I bought that shop's cream cheese and kept it in my office fridge to schmear on plain bagels at my own leisure? I start saving every day.

An otherwise perfect fresh bagel from Absolute has a walloping 71 grams of cream cheese on it—that's 2.5 ounces, just too much for me and most people I know. But if I schmeared on a more manageable 30 grams of cream cheese, my price per schmear would drop from $1.23 to a mere 53 cents, and I'd save a whole 72 cents per bagel. Over the course of a year that's $261.68 in savings.

Finding a good bagel in New York is hard enough as-is. Finding one that won't try to kill your cholesterol levels with a fistful of cream cheese is even harder. So if you only want a schmear with your breakfast? Take things into your own hands.

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