Hurricane Irene apparently was even worse than anyone thought. Forget about downed power lines — the storm knocked out Baltimore's sweet tooth.
For much of the past three weeks, nearly 600 area stores and countless customers have been denied their accustomed fix of Berger Cookies, which for the past 175 years have been one of Baltimore's best-loved snacks. Though the cookies are locally manufactured, there were none to be found, because the boxes in which they were to have been wrapped were a waterlogged, soggy mess.
No wonder voter turnout for Tuesday's primary election was historically low. The entire civic body was in the throes of a glucose crash.
"My wife and I couldn't find the cookies on our grocery store shelves, and we were heartbroken," says David Derewicz, general manager of The Prime Rib restaurant.
"When we couldn't locate them anywhere, we thought the plant might be closing. It was really worrisome. I can truly say we were very concerned. Isn't it hilarious to feel that way about a cookie?"
But, as any connoisseur will tell you, a Berger isn't just any old cookie. Made and sold locally since roughly 1835, a Berger is the thinnest possible wafer supporting the thickest possible layer of chocolate. It's a traditional local comfort food that's served — proudly and without apologies — at fancy dinner parties alongside gourmet desserts.
Bakery owner Charles DeBaufre says his staff normally produces 2,500 pounds of Berger Cookies a day, and delivers them to about 600 stores around the region, some more than once a week.
So, DeBaufre was worried when Irene struck late last month. After the skies cleared, he inspected his Waterview Avenue facility, and was relieved to find that his expensive ingredients and equipment had escaped unharmed.
Then Debaufre glanced over to the shelf containing his entire supply of approximately 6,000 cardboard boxes in which the cookies are packaged. The shelf was beneath a window that had kept out most of the rain, but not all of it. The boxes were sopping wet.
"The boxes were in the wrong place below the wrong window," DeBaufre says. "You had to see it to believe it."
There are only two establishments in the region that don't sell Berger Cookies in boxes: Costco, which encloses them in plastic, and the Berger stand at the Lexington Market, which displays them on trays. So, for more than two weeks, DeBaufre said, they were the only stores in all of Baltimore still able to sell the tasty treat, forcing the cookies' fans to go cold turkey.
Linda Busick, a clerk at the Lucky's Superette Convenience Store at 445 E. Fort Ave., estimated that between 30 and 40 customers have come into the store since the hurricane to ask when Berger Cookies would be restocked.
"They say they can't find them nowhere, they want them, and they want them badly," Busick says.
"We've had a few pregnant women and elderly people come in three, four days in a row and say, 'Still no Bergers? Still no Bergers?' I will be so happy when I see that big truck pull up to the front door. I will be ecstatic."
Ethan Giffin runs a Baltimore business that provides instruction on marketing products online, and he sends new clients a package containing, among other things, T-shirts, a container of Old Bay, and a box of Bergers.
"People just love them," Giffin says.
"They call and say, 'Thanks for the package. Send more cookies.' It's the way both sides work together, the cookie with the frosting. They're so rich that if you eat more than one or two at a time, you get kind of sick."
High praise, indeed.
Jerry Gordon, owner of Eddie's Market of Charles Village, said that in the days immediately after Irene, his customers were mostly concerned with replenishing their supply of batteries and other necessities. Still, he's relieved that he didn't have to go without his twice-weekly shipments of Berger Cookies for longer than he did.
"They're very popular," Gordon says. "And it doesn't matter where we put them, because our customers will find them."
He's eaten Bergers all his life, and is a fan of the cookie's versatility.
"My wife, Darlene, takes most of the chocolate off," he says."I'll scoop the chocolate out of the box."
Indeed, Berger Cookies figure prominently in the couple's more lighthearted dreams of building a tidy nest egg.
"I thought of retiring and taking the cookies up to Penn Station in New York," Gordon jokes. "We could sell them there for $10 a box."
Normally, it takes Berger's Philadelphia-area supplier about eight weeks to schedule a delivery of the boxes. But once DeBaufre explained his plight, the supplier put in an order for a rush job and got the boxes to Baltimore in two weeks.
Deliveries of the cookies to area groceries began on Monday, and DeFaubre estimated that by the end of Friday every store should have received a new stock.
Maybe then, frantic customers will finally stop calling the Berger Cookie plant.
"I would just sit in the office and listen to the phone ring off the hook," DeFaubre says.
"People would call and say, 'Where can I buy your cookies?' and I would have to say, 'You can't.' "