The Baltimore City Health Department shut down Berger Cookies after receiving an anonymous complaint about the iconic Baltimore-based bakery and subsequently learning it was operating without a license. And now the city is not sure if the bakery ever had a license at all.
"I can't speculate on how long they've been without a license," said health department spokeswoman Tiffany Thomas Smith, "but would say that we're checking with state and FDA inspectors to confirm their last inspection dates." However, state officials told The Baltimore Sun that they do not have jurisdiction over city facilities. FDA officials had no immediate information.
The health department said it told Berger officials the facility would need a "plan review inspection," which was conducted on Feb. 1. Generally plan review inspections are for new licenses and changes of ownership, Thomas said, adding that "because we didn't have a current license on file, our inspectors treated the facility as a new license applicant."
Area retailers say they last received shipments of the popular cookies on Jan. 31 and many stores were told the problem was related to a roof collapse at the bakery, although there are no visible signs of damage from the outside of the building. January 31 is also the day the health department ordered the bakery to cease operations.
In addition to the licensing problem, the Cherry Hill-based company is also dealing with the health issues of its owner, Charles DeBaufre Jr., 60. He was recently admitted to Franklin Square Hospital, where he remains in serious condition. The company's website and outgoing voice mail say that it is temporarily closed due to an illness.
The health department said it had no food-safety concerns about the Berger bakery and that the inspection turned up only minor issues. The bakery was told on Feb. 14 that it could resume operations as soon as it paid a $500 permit fee.
Timonium attorney Anthony T. Bartlett, a spokesman for the DeBaufre family, said he had little information about the situation at the bakery because of DeBaufre's health.
"It appears there may have been some administrative oversight or misunderstanding as to what type of license he had to have," he said. "But I don't know that for sure."
The paperwork for the license has been completed and a check signed, but "the problem is he's physically unable to execute the documents, so everything is on hold," Bartlett said, adding that the family expects a full recovery.
He said he had been unable to reach officials in the city's health department earlier Friday to determine whether there were other options for filing the documents.
He called the bakery "a good corporate citizen, a good business for Baltimore, a Baltimore success story" run by a "down to earth, blue collar family, everything that Baltimore represents."
Berger Cookies have been produced exclusively by the DeBaufre family bakery since 1969, but they kept the name Berger, a business that traces its origin to the mid-19th century. Since 1986, DeBaufre has been the business' sole proprietor and supplies cookies to stores across the region.
The bakery also produces a limited line of cakes, but it's the hand-dipped fudge cookie that has entered Baltimore folklore. "What the madeleine was to Proust, the Berger Cookie is to Baltimoreans," an essayist wrote on American Food Roots, a website devoted to culturally significant food.
Berger Cookies were recently included in the wager that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made with her counterpart in Boston before the AFC Championship game between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots. To Baltimore's delight, no Berger Cookies were sent to Boston.
The stoppage's effects on the bakery may linger after operations resume, according to Johnetta Hardy, director for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at University of Baltimore Merrick School of Business.
"Many small businesses think that crises only happen to big companies, like Enron and Exxon. But small companies often have a greater reliance on a small customer base," Hardy said, adding that small businesses should to do extensive planning and consider how to delegate responsibility in case of illness. "The first step in crisis management is to prevent a crisis in the first place."
If Berger Cookies were gone forever, Towson resident Janet Pilarski said she would "miss them terribly, and I consider myself a huge foodie."
Still, Pilarski was surprised at the depth of feeling of many Berger fans. "Honestly, my friends on Facebook are panic-stricken about it. I said to a friend, 'People are more concerned about the availability of chocolate-topped cookies in Baltimore than the impending budget crisis in Washington.'"
Lucy Wase of Roland Park, who heard about the cookie shortage when she was at Center Stage with her husband, was less circumspect. "That's an institution," she said. "What would we do without Bergers?"
That sentiment was shared by the propietor of Eddies of Roland Park.
"I hope they resolve their licensing issue soon and resume making those fantastic cookies we all love," said Nancy Cohen, who operates the local grocery chain. "As the owner of another family-owned and -operated business, I wish the DeBaufres well and Charles a speedy recovery."