Store shelves could soon be filled with boxes of Baltimore's iconic Berger Cookies: The City Health Department approved the company's license on Wednesday and gave it a green light for production.
The bakery expects to begin limited deliveries over the weekend and intends to resume its full schedule by Monday, said Anthony T. Bartlett, a spokesman for the family-owned, privately held company.
That's welcome news to retailers and shoppers, who have been without the cookies for nearly three weeks.
"It's one of those items people hunt you down for," said Jason Jeffers, a manager at Eddie's Market of Charles Village.
The rack near the register where Berger Cookies usually sit have been filled with other baked goods. "We ended up setting out chocolate-topped cookies," said the store's general manager, Howard Glazer. "But they're not Bergers."
And in Baltimore, substitutes will not do.
"I couldn't imagine the chocolate frosting not existing," said Colleen Condon of North Harford Road. Condon said the health-department issues wouldn't keep her from buying the cookies again because they were not related to food safety. "I'm just really glad they're coming back."
So is Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
"With all the bad news coming out of Washington, I'm glad there's great news coming out of Baltimore," she said. "I never met a calorie I didn't like — and that goes double for Berger Cookies. All of Baltimore can rest a little easier knowing that our sweet tooths will soon have a Berger Cookie to bite into."
After receiving an anonymous tip, the Health Department closed the bakery on Jan. 31 for operating without a city-issued food-service license. And it appears that the DeBaufre Bakeries, which has been producing the hand-dipped cookies since 1969, had never obtained the proper approvals.
"It's just a very rare occurrence for this to happen," said Mary Beth Haller, the assistant commissioner of environmental health.
The city has no record of DeBaufre Bakeries ever having a food license, and Haller said the department handles about a dozen cases each year of establishments operating without a license. Of those, most are cases in which someone bought an existing restaurant and did not get a new license in the new owner's name.
Bartlett, the company's attorney, said the bakery's failure to have a proper license was not a willful attempt to evade regulation.
"It appears they had their federal permit and have been routinely inspected [by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration]," he said. "For whatever reason there was no understanding that they needed a Baltimore City permit."
The bakery does have a federal food license, according to the FDA, and officials there have an ongoing investigation stemming from a routine inspection in January. A spokesman declined to comment on what the investigators have found. Records show the FDA, which does not communicate about its findings with the city, inspected the bakery at least once before, in 2011, and found no serious violations.
When the city Health Department inspected the bakery on Feb. 1, it found what a department spokeswoman described as "non-critical violations that would not pose an immediate threat to the public's health." These included a broken bathroom door, burned-out light bulbs and cracks on the floor, walls and ceiling.
When inspectors returned on Feb. 14, all the violations had been addressed except a hole above the mop sink and a missing employee hand-washing sign. On that same day, the health department approved the bakery's food license, pending the completion of a full license application.
But the bakery's efforts to complete its application were stalled by the ill health of its sole owner, Charles DeBaufre, who was hospitalized on Feb. 14 for a respiratory ailment and remained in the hospital on Wednesday. Bartlett said that it was only Monday when DeBaufre was well enough to sign the proper documents.
Berger Cookies are famous, but the bakery itself operates quietly in an unmarked building in the city's Cherry Hill neighborhood. Store owners who buy and stock the bakery's cookies were not informed about the health department closure by the bakery directly. Multiple retailers said they had heard the delay in production was because the bakery's roof had collapsed.
The lack of a license is not the first paperwork issue that the bakery has faced. In 2002 the bakery forfeited its corporate charter, which is distinct from a business license, for failure in 2001 to file a property return, a document companies must complete to remain incorporated. The charter was reinstated in 2010, and the company is now in good standing.
"That's not unusual and happens all the time. It happens to lots of companies of all sizes," said Mark D. Dopkin, an attorney specializing in real estate law with the Tydings and Rosenberg law firm. "Sometimes the owner thinks the accountant did it, and the accountant thinks the owner did it."
The process of obtaining all the necessary charters, permits and licenses can be a challenging or lengthy one for small business owners, said Kiesha Smoots, director of the state Small Business and Technology Development Center's regional office in Baltimore. The office commonly gets questions not just from those who are starting businesses from scratch, but those who have bought or inherited businesses and don't understand all the legal and regulatory steps that must be taken.
"It's not something you might get done overnight or within a couple of days," Smoots said. "It's important to get the support and advice from an expert to prevent some of the issues that could come down the road."
Berger Cookies has never been a company that seemed slickly run or eager to make huge gains in market share.
"I don't think they've put any kind of concerted effort to promoting themselves like Sun of Italy and Old Bay have," said Sarah Quackenbush, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the non-profit American Advertising Federation. "A lot of money is put to making a commodity product into an icon. Brands try to do it everyday. [Berger has] quietly grown their business by making a really good product."
And while the company doesn't often chase publicity, the interest surrounding the licensing problem could be the kind of attention some brands only dream about. Susan J. Anthony, founder of Baltimore County public relations firm Sawmill Marketing, said the nature of the cookie shortage means it could turn out to be a net plus for the company.