"Seek and ye shall find" is the motto of the supermarket, with its 10,000 and more items on the shelves. But those who are seeking a different kind of product - the hobbiest cook or the person on a special diet -can find mass-market merchandise unsatisfying.
For those customers, however, a difficult situation is improving. Health-food stores have outlasted their fad period. Independent groceries and speciality shops have growing appeal. And there is an encouraging influx of intelligent, imaginative young people into the special food field.
Mitch Berliner and Howard Solganik are two cases in point. Berliner, 30, distributes food products as a wholesaler and, with his wife Linda, sells directly to the public from a stand at the Bethesda Farm Women's Cooperative. Solganik, at 27, is the driving force behind the new Georgetown Wine and Food Company, a retail shop at the Potomac River end of Wisconsin Avenue.
Both of them object to the "system," and with the energy, idealism (and, perhaps, naivete) of youth are trying to prove something else can work.
Mitch Berliner sells Haagen Dazs ice cream, Creme Fraiche , Saucier products, pates from a top New York shop, quiches from a Baltimore woman known as Ms. Desserts, frozen French and Italian specialty foods and nearly 20 other products, most of which will never see the inside of a supermarket. Instead, he makes the rounds of the independent stores. Sometimes an item in his line will sell more than 10 cases a week - hardly worth the effort.
"If we counted on volume to stay in business," Berliner said, "there would be no way to keep it. But it's not just an accounting judgment for us. Our criteria are different. We feel our products are very special." What counts, he explained, is that the product be superior in taste and its ingredients all natural.
"We've gone after most of our products," Berliner said. His acquisition of Natural Nectar frozen desserts is a good example of the operation. Linda Berliner, who combs up to 50 publications a month researching food (and their off-duty hobbies - restaurants and travel), read about a Los Angeles firm that was marketing "a line of all-natural ice creams, novelties and frozen yogurt."
Mitch Berliner tracked the firm down by telephone and spoke to two rather vague people, both in their 20s, who were astounded that someone in Washington had heard of them. Berliner endured a wild goose chase to the airport when the pair forgot to air express samples, and he kept trying. Now Yulovit, an all-natural ice cream sandwich, and several sister products promise to be summer-time best-seller here - though not in the supermarkets.
The Berliners met as students at American University. "It was 'the heavy years,' 1966 to 1970," Mitch Berliner said. "But with all the political stuff that was going on, we would take time to cook and made a hobby of going to different markets for ingredients. We were stuffing and roasting ducks, making quiches and crepes. We didn't have much money but we had time. It was fun to be a hippy. I think about it every time the phone rings at 6 a.m. and I have to go fix a truck."
Following graduation, Linda applied for a stand at the Farm Women's Market. When that came through, in 1971, their course was set.
"We took in $8 the first day," Mitch Berliner recalled. "We had worked for two days making stuffed grape leaves that we sold for 10 cents each." They also made and sold their own cakes and quiches, then began to sell "unusual things from other areas." They drove to Pennsylvania to pick up cheeses, to New York for Haagan Dazs, to the airport for special deliveries of chemical-free bratwurst and liverwurst from Milwaukee.
Eventually, they stopped making foods themselves, though they still squeeze 1,500 oranges every Friday evening and sell the fresh juice at their stand on Saturday. They also gave up a summertime project, Berliner's Fresh Produre, after three years.
"It was the kind of problem small businesses face," Mitch Berliner recalled of the three different stands they had in the three years - first in Bethesda, then in Rockville for two years and finally in the District, which charged them $111 for permits, then a few weeks later closed their stand because it did not have toilets with hot and cold running water.
For the Berliners, who routinely are up and working at 6 a.m., except on Saturday when they begin at 4:30 a.m., the closing was a mixed blessing. During the season Mitch would leave at 3 a.m. to drive to Maryland's Eastern Shore for corn ("we wouldn't sell corn a day old"), melons and tomatoes. At about 9:30, he would turn to the wholesale business, then in the evening he and Linda would execute orders and schedules for the next day. On top of that were the regular two days - Wednesday and Saturday - at the Farm Women's Market.
The Berliners will soon move into their own warehouse in Gaithersburg, not far from their Olney home. That means the end of daily trips to a storage facility in Baltimore. Mitch Berliner plans to arrange demonstratons and do more promotion for his products. One of the large supermarket chains called him recently to inquire about a product customers had been requesting. And "now some manufacturers are coming to us," Berliner said. "But we've turned most of them down. The products either taste terrible, are full of chemicals or both."
Howard Solganik is one of the independent merchants who stocks some of Mitch Berliner's products. He, too, attended American University. Soon after his arrival from Dayton, Ohio in 1970, he was smitten by the Wine and Cheese Shop in Georgetown. He pestered wine manager Fred Weck for a job and began a continuing romance with wine.
While still in his early 20s, Solganik became the East Coast representative of Bon Vin, a pioneer in bringing wines east from the small wineries of California. He worked for a local wine wholesaler as well. After obtaining a degree in marketing, he tried the investment business, but left after a year. He went to Europe in hopes of becoming a wine broker, returned to Washington when that didn't pan out and became a consultant to a wine shop and to several restaurants.
He considered opening a wine bar, but when a Georgetown location became available last year Solganik and his partner, Tom Wallick, hit on another scheme. They would specialize in the wines and foods of America.
"I'd been accumulating mail order food catalogues for eight years," Solganik explained last week. "There was a great sameness to them. Nobody had assembled an offering of regional American specialities the way they do in France. We thought it would be neat to do it.I think there are signs that Americans are starting to appreciate what they have in their own backyards."
The two chief problems Solganik encountered after he sent 1,500 letters of inquiry across the country were "either the firm was real small and could sell everything it made at retail, so they had no interest in selling wholesale; or, they made totally fresh products and were reluctant to ship them because the risk of spoilage was so great."
He kept at it, and the store opened last December. Is is still in evolution, but the informality is established. Some of the wine is in cupboard cartons on the natural wood floors. Signs advertise Johnny Harris barbecue sauce from Savannah and Gertrude Ford, "America's only tea balls." There are free samples of "squaw candy," cured salmon from Washington State. A featured wine is Cucamonga Village, hardly a household name locally.
"There's not a bottle of garbage out there," Solganik said. "It's just doesn't pay to sell food and wine of inferior quality, even if they are big sellers. We don't want to be another corner deli. We have cigarettes and candy here, but it's very discreet. We want to have national implications. We think our market will be young people, 20 to 45, who wat and entertain at home. They don't want fancy labels. They do want something distinctive.
"We plan to carry specific fresh products only when they are available. We don't want to be in the fish business. We don't want to have to deal with spoilage. So we have a salmon express from Washington state. We post a shipping date and people sign up. I call on Monday, the fish is prepared on Tuesday and we have it Wednesday morning."
That's worked so well, Solganik is contemplating a "Catfish Express." He also plans to feature the products of a specific state. Washington was first. Virginia wines, hams and mustard are prominently displayed. New York will come this summer. Variety will be accented as well: "I'm going to assemble the largest collection of barbecue sauces in America," he promised.
It takes time to build a clientele, however, and Solganik feels that even the initial investment of $150,000 "wasn't enough. Money and cash flow come into consideration, no matter how idealistic you want to be."
A stove to prepare food daily on location will help business, he feels; so will the installation of a refrigerated display counter. "I could use a full-time researcher," he said, "a budget for telephone calls and a secretary to type letters. I found it was cheaper to go to California and Washington state and find things myself. But time is a problem."
For a moment last month, however, these considerations paled. Georgetown Wine and Food was selected to provide American products for a reception in New York given by the International Review of Food & Wine to kick off a week featuring chefs of the Jeune Gastronomie . Solganik went to New York and mingled with the food establishment. The party was a success. His photograph was taken in front of a poster and now hangs in the store.
The photo makes it appear that Howard Solganik is on the cover of the magazine. CAPTION: Picture 1, Tom Wallick and Howard Solganik in their Georgetown Wine and Food store; Picture 2, Mitch Berliner, by Douglas Chevalier - The Washington Post; Pictures 3 and 4, no caption