EARLY FRIDAY MORNING, a dozen shoppers push their carts through the Ms. Desserts factory store, determined to get their weekends off to a sweet start. They examine shelves stacked high with cakes and cookies, with brownies and pies and quiches. There are toffee crunch cheesequakes and chocolate pecan pies, Italian deep dish quiches and Great American Chocolate Cakes.
A special table displays the tantalizing geography of the company's trademark peanut butter volcanos: Peanut butter mousse on a brownie tart base covered with brownie chunks, dollops of peanut butter mousse and more than a pound of dark chocolate "mud" and peanuts.
In contrast to such a riotous display of food, customers seem extremely well behaved. . .especially if you consider these riches cost 50 to 75 percent less than usual.
Lee Coleman of Charles Village buys a 9x12-inch tray of Blondies -- brown sugar squares loaded with walnuts and chocolate chips -- for $5.50 (Retail is $19) and a mini-bundt banana walnut cake for $2 (retail is $4.95). She spends another dollar on an 11-inch chocolate brownie base which looks like a giant cookie. Used as the foundation for the "Natural Disaster" line of desserts, the brownie also provides dandy support for various ice creams, Coleman says.
Vicky Whetstone of Catonsville says it would cost her more to buy the ingredients for some of these all-natural desserts than to pay the discount price for the finished products. She says she makes a point to visit the store whenever she needs to provide something for a school or church bake sale.
Or if she's entertaining.
"I tend to buy anything that's chocolate," she confesses.
Ron Joynes and A. Jamal have dropped in to pick up a couple of carrot cakes on the way to work for the Baltimore County Police department. They pay $10 for each ten-inch cake, compared to the retail price of $28.50 per cake.
The store's most popular items, according to factory store manager Meyer Peisach, are muffins: Blueberry, cranberry, bran, carrot, lemon, banana nut and chunky apple. A six pack costs $3 at the factory store, compared to $7.10 retail.
The Ms. Desserts factory store, 2275 Rolling Run Drive, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Friday and Saturday. Sixty percent of the products on display are "oopsed," which means they were damaged in freight, handling or food processing, says Peisach. None of the irregularities affect the taste of the product; many are imperceptible.
Food imperfections may consist of the size or weight of a product or its appearance: Sometimes muffins don't rise as high as they should or cake frosting shows a few spots of butter.
Other desserts, such as oat bran bars, go on sale because they have been discontinued.
A product is also discounted if its recipe or appearance is modified. When Ms. Desserts decided to remove cream cheese dollops from its Key lime pies, for instance, those pies with dollops were reduced to $6 each, compared to the usual retail price of $17.50.
Shoppers can also benefit from product development. At work on perfecting a "blondie" brownie pie for a national restaurant chain, for instance, the company is selling all of its test batches in the factory store. Ms. Desserts also plans to create a new line of French tarts.
Those desserts available at wholesale prices have no flaws; the factory store offers its regular retail customers an additional 10 percent discount to shop there.
Founded 12 years ago by Dean Kolstad of Silver Spring and Jeff and Gary Peisach of Baltimore, Ms. Desserts manufactures more than 50 all-natural food products ranging from breaded Baltimore cheesebreads and handcrafted quiches to Great American Chocolate Cakes. Its customers include Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Walt Disney World, Giant Food Inc., Princeton University, IKEA, the National Gallery of Art and the Marriott Corporation as well as thousands of restaurants, hotels, delicatessans and gourmet shops along the East Coast.
The quick success of the factory store seems characteristic of the Baltimore-based company. Two years ago Meyer Peisach took a job with his sons after selling his own business, The New York Sewing Machine Company. After working a few months in the shipping department, he noticed the company was donating thousands of dollars worth of food to food banks every month because the products had slight imperfections.
He suggested Ms Desserts hold a one day "oops sale" to see if people would be interested in buying "damaged" desserts. Ms. Desserts's trial sale -- held on a snowy December day in 1989 -- brought in $3,500.
A year later, December's sales reached $90,000.