IT is a world that most of us never see. Butchers, forklift operators, stockmen, truck drivers. Unloading, reloading and unloading again. Frenetic phone calls. Offers, counter-offers. Buy more, pay less. Here today, gone tomorrow. It is the syncopation of food wholesalers, the middlemen between the manufacturer and the distributor or retailer in the chain from field to refrigerator.

In Washington, it's possible for consumers to break that link, to enter the connective system closer to the source, to buy wholesale.

When you go to a major supermarket, "the customer pays for the Muzak, the fancy shopping carts, the 20 cashiers. If you're willing to do a little work for yourself, you'll get a fresher product and it will be cheaper," says Richard Kozlow, co-owner of Organic Farms in Beltsville.

The retail mark-ups speak for themselves: Kozlow's organic navel oranges sell for $7 a half case, about 35 or 40 oranges. Home Rule, a health food store on Columbia Road, sells them 3 for $1.25. Jarlsberg cheese sells for $2.89 a pound at Potomac Butter & Egg; $4.25 at Suzanne's, $4.49 at Safeway.

And then there's the freshness factor: pita bread baked that day on the premises, fish just shipped from the docks, produce that has arrived that morning off trucks with Florida or California license plates. For her Chevy Chase neighborhood co-op, Lotte Wolfe buys from Kossow's, a northeast Washington wholesaler. The produce, she says, is "a quality you never see in chain supermarkets."

The range is wide of wholesale operators who will sell direct retail; a few allow shoppers to wander around the warehouse, picking and packing their own. Because wholesalers couldn't cope with supermarketsful of people, many may never let you see the food you buy--no pretty display cases on which to lean; no chance to squeeze a cantaloupe. Orders are placed by phone, packed by the company and sometimes--if you order above a minimum--can be delivered to your home. Still other establishments have special retail outlets located on the warehouse premises. And some manufacturers--wholesale bakeries in particular--also will sell on their premises.

Wholesaling is a business that thinks big. Cheddar cheese in 150-pound wheels, coffee filters the size of an opened umbrella, 90-pound bags of pink peppercorns. Not all goods come in such large packages, however, and whether shopping for a co-op, group house, large family or single's apartment, buying wholesale does not necessitate purchasing a 50-pound swordfish. Like Filene's bargain basement, the deals may require digging.

Wholesale buying demands a few adaptations in shopping philosophy. Don't expect many pre-packaged single-serving items in neat rows or clerks to wait on you; this is warehouse din. Unit pricing works most effectively on the wholesale level--the more you buy the more you save. There are frequently minimum purchases (3 boxes of Bremner wafers at Potomac Butter & Egg, 5 pounds of raisins at Organic Farms)--but bulk buying need not be ruled out for lengthy shelf-life items such as Italian wholesaler Litteri's 1-pound containers of black pepper for $2.25 (eight ounces of McCormick's sells for $1.99 at Giant), or its 1-pound jars of nutmeg that sell for $3.25 (1.37-ounces sells for $1.43 at Giant). Even for more perishable items, though, there are few hungry households that can't polish off a 5-pound bag of freshly made corn chips, few cocktail parties that don't nibble 3 pounds of cheese. And many items, such as Claxton's 5-pound-minimum shrimp order, will certainly keep in the freezer.

Wholesale prices fluctuate according to the commodities market, so the eggs you buy one week may be a different price the next. And sometimes you can even bargain: Tony Chan of Happy Valley Produce says he "sometimes loses money on the deal" when selling items to walk-in customers from his Chinese wholesale house.

The prices sold to consumers who buy wholesale are frequently the same that the wholesaler is selling to a store. As a result, many wholesalers won't sell to consumers. It "puts you in direct competition to the places you're selling to," says Pat Palmer, of Paul Baker Inc. a Fairfax wholesaler. "I certainly value their wholesale clients business more than that off the street," says David Yevzeroff of Kossow's, the northeast produce wholesaler. Still, says Yevzeroff, like other wholesalers interviewed, "we don't solicit off-the-street business, but if it comes in we'll accommodate it."

For others, individual customers disrupt the busy business of wholesaling and are not worth the time or money. Washington Beef closed its retail outlet in January after three years of operation. "We have hotel accounts that buy more in a day than the store made in a week," said Washington Beef's Jeff Kolker.

For the wholesalers or manufacturers who do choose to sell to consumers, it's likely to be a subsidy, a sideline to their business. "We have always viewed it as an advantage for the person who makes the pickup," said Barbara Julian, director of operations of Moctec Enterprises, a corn tortilla manufacturer in northeast Washington whose clients are primarily restaurants. "You pay for convenience."

The following are examples of how a wholesaler or manufacturer can sell retail--one, a warehouse full of fresh produce where you order ahead; another a manufacturer where the factory is only a doorway behind the shop; and last, a dairy wholesaler with a special retail shop wedged in between the cheese freezers.

"Grapefruit, $10 a throw." "The most beautiful lemons you've ever seen," hawks Richard Kozlow, on the phone to a client from his Beltsville organic produce company, Organic Farms. Outside the glass-enclosed office, clerks are restocking the warehouse, already neatly stacked with 5- and 25-pound bags of soy beans, garbanzos, split peas, pintos, lentils, dates, cashews. Even in warehouse lighting, the food looks as if it had a fine upbringing. It is beautiful. There are bags of moist and date-like Monnuka raisins, freezers full of sugary oranges, fresh farm eggs and Amish cheeses. This is a veritable commune of wholesome foods. And Kozlow is its guru.

"My clients are getting away from health food stores and into mainstream America," says Kozlow. As the mainstream begins to accept organic produce, though, it also will have to accept the prices, which are generally higher than commercial prices. The reasons, says Kozlow, are that organic farms tend to be small and more labor-intensive (more attention needed in grading, picking, packing), plus freight costs are greater; it costs more to ship less.

Even so, at the wholesale level, Kozlow's prices are cheaper than supermarket prices. Knudsen's cranberry juice sells for $3.23 for the 32-ounce jar, $5.25 at Home Rule health food store. Kozlow has packaged his own trail mix because he didn't like the ones on the market; a mixture of raw unsalted walnuts, almonds, cashew pieces, brazil nuts, sunflower seeds and raisins, it sells for $1.79 a pound--but you have to buy 25 pounds. ("Harmony Trail Mix" sells at Giant and Safeway for $2.69 a pound.) Organic Farms sells Minnesota wild rice for $4.99 a pound/5-pound minimum, while Giant's Minnesota wild rice sells for $2.69 for 4 ounces--or almost $11 a pound.

Joseph Dunsmoor, Kozlow's partner, an ex-farmer, frequently travels cross-country searching for organic goods the operation can buy. Organic Farms requires that farmers who sell to them fill out an affidavit stating that the food is in fact organic (grown without insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, hormones, preservatives, coloring or wax in production, marketing or storage). Kozlow says he's even invited commercial retailers for taste-offs, requesting them to bring along their "best navel oranges" to taste against his organics.

Kozlow is fond of waxing philosophical about food distribution: There's not a lot of "public awareness about exactly what happens along the food trail," he says. "Children grow up thinking food comes from a supermarket, not a farm."

Take about 5 tons of corn, and in 2,700-pound batches, place in metal tubs filled with water. Add unbleached lime (to soften) and cook at 150 degrees for one hour. Wash it, grind it, press it and cut it into 8-, 10- and 12-inch tortillas and you'll have enough to feed the entire Aztec Empire. At least it seems that way, and it's only Eugene Suarez's daily recipe for tortillas.

Because he is a manufacturer, consumers "can cut out two pay steps," says Suarez from his Herndon Mexican retail shop, Casa Suarez, a storefront operation attached to his Herndon tortilla, taco and chip factory, S & K Industries Inc. Not only are they cheap, but Suarez's corn products are literally right off the presses--and they taste it. They remind you that there's corn in them--more so than any bag of commercial chips, box of tacos or frozen tortillas that made the trek from factory to truck to warehouse to supermarket.

Chips sell for $1.40 a pound, $7 for a 5-pound case; tortillas 35 cents a dozen, taco shells 95 cents for a package of 20. In addition, you can get red chili pods, chorizo, tamales, hominy, mole', enchiladas, flour tortillas and a variety of canned Mexican sauces and peppers. The savings on canned items come from buying in bulk; for example, a 6-pound, 14-ounce can of El Paso refried beans sells for $3.79 or about 54 cents a pound, a 1-pound can of the beans sells at Safeway for 83 cents and Giant for 79 cents.

When it comes to his corn products, Suarez is a purist. No salt, although he says he's getting pressured from some clients who want him to salt the chips. "I hate to do it," says Suarez, and he hasn't. And no preservatives, thus the shelf life of the tortillas is only 5 or 6 days. As a result, prices go down considerably at the end of the week--maybe 15 dozen tortillas for $2 if you're the last patron before the store closes. What doesn't sell by the end of the week is sold to area farmers who use it as feed for their livestock.

Suarez sells his tortillas, taco shells and chips to distributors who then mark up the price and sell to restaurants. So, if you were having a party and wanted to buy a case of tortilla chips, you'd pay less than the restaurant, says Marie Forman, sales manager of S & K.

Step up on the loading dock, past the refrigerator stocked with 100,000 dozen eggs, next to the walk-in filled with waxed and red-cellophaned goudas and Bel Paese and you'll be in the southwest Washington retail shop of Potomac Butter & Egg. Only don't expect to see shelves of butter and eggs. Do expect refrigerator cases of 3- and 5-pound chunks of brie, stilton, cheshire, baby swiss, mozzarella, Vermont cheddar; freezers of Lean Cuisine and phyllo dough; canned hams; potato chips; crackers and tea.

Many of the company's diversified shop items come in retail-size packs, but the best deals, says president Gerald Cohen, are the imported cheeses, which he claims are 25 percent to 50 percent cheaper than retail establishments--if, that is, you buy per wheel. When people stop by on Friday afternoons buying a round of brie, says Cohen, he knows "it's party time." Besides the savings, the reason customers prefer to buy whole rounds of cheese, says Cohen, is that it stays fresher. When you buy cut and/or prepackaged cheese in a store, "air hits it each time."

You can buy butter and eggs here, but the savings are not as great as the cheeses. A pound of unsalted Land O'Lakes sells for $1.99 at Potomac Butter & Egg, $2.15 at Safeway. A dozen large eggs sells for 93 cents at Giant and Safeway; the price for eggs this past week at Potomac Butter & Egg was 77 cents per dozen.

Judy Shapiro, who heads a Gaithersburg co-op with a group of families in her neighborhood, says she saves from $10 to $12 a month on her $30 dairy product bill from buying wholesale from Potomac Butter & Egg. If the wholesaler is out of something, she says, she'll "really think twice before buying it in a regular market."