Most locals in New York consider many of the city’s most iconic foods, like a street cart hot dog – best enjoyed while sitting in a park and studiously avoiding thinking about food preparation hygiene – a once-a-year culinary occasion at best. But there’s one New York staple that residents and sightseers, Jews and Gentiles, and Manhattanites and Brooklyners consume with equal voracity: the bagel.
Which is why, when the news broke last week that Albany was enforcing a “bagel tax,” a hullabaloo erupted from food publications and New Yorkers alike. The Wall Street Journal reported that beloved local chain Bruegger’s Bagels was being forced to hike its prices thanks to new enforcement of an old sales tax statute.
Unsliced bagels sold by the bag qualify as grocery staples, exempt from the eight percent state sales tax. But slice that bagel or toast it in a shop and it becomes a prepared food item, eligible for taxation. Albany, strapped for cash, has apparently begun observing the law more assiduously, cracking down on bagel vendors across the city.
Kenneth Greene, the owner of Bruegger’s, learned of the distinction when the state slammed him for failing to collect the extra eight cents on his $1 sliced bagels. Greene and his customers were disgruntled that the state would qualify a plain bagel with no added frills but a slice down the center as “prepared.” Similarly, a bagel that a customer ate in the shop was deemed taxable, though one taken to go was not.
“Taxing something that’s a staple for millions of New Yorkers is not going to be popular,” said Wilson Dizard, a customer at Bergen’s Bagels in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. “Albany should pay more attention to their own laws. But I guess the rules are the rules.”
While it does seem needlessly nitpicky for the state to begin charging for toasting, New Yorkers aren’t staging their own version of the Boston Tea Party just yet. (Just think, all those delicious onion morsels floating in the Hudson River.) Several bagel shop owners say Greene is making much ado about nothing, and that customers haven’t been grumbling that much about the price increase on their morning meal.
“I think it’s a fair tax. We haven’t had many people come up and complain. Honestly, many people don’t really notice,” said Cruz Alonso Gom, manager of Murray’s Bagels on 6th Avenue.
Don’t worry: New York bagels aren’t going anywhere. But they are joining a less auspicious New York tradition: being more expensive than the rest of the country.