INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
QUARRYVILLE, Pa. - Tomato cans were as banged up as old boxers' faces.
Torn cereal boxes listed in ragged rows like drunken soldiers struggling to stand at attention.
A pink Barbie Band-Aid box ($1.25, regularly $2.99) was stained. Something had discolored a wet, 8-ounce Kraft balsamic vinaigrette bottle (50 cents, regularly $1.69). And a taped-together Ortega Grande Pizza Kit, two months past its expiration date, had a large "X" marked on its label ($1.50, regularly $3.49).
It's not pretty. But it is cheap.
This is discount grocery shopping, Amish style - at 30 percent to 70 percent or more below regular supermarket prices.
"I can fill a shopping cart for $50 that I'd pay $300 for in a regular retail store," said Gerri Smith, a Baltimore nurse and constant customer of B.B.'s Grocery Outlet in this bucolic Amish town in Lancaster County. "When I first heard about this place, I said, 'No, it can't be real.' "
B.B.'s, one of four stores owned by Amish businessman Ben Beiler, was started in a chicken coop on Beiler's farm 22 years ago.
It's part of a fast-growing but little-known industry said to have been originated by Amish and Mennonite proprietors, but now catching on among non-Amish businesspeople as well: salvage grocery stores, where dinged, bent and often untidy items are for sale at lower-than-dollar-store prices. Typically, the merchandise is a casualty of commerce - products that fell off forklifts or storage shelves in rough and kinetic distribution centers and warehouses.
In some cases, foods and over-the-counter medicines are past their expiration or sell-by dates yet are still legal to sell under state and federal law.
But the expirations hardly deter shoppers reeling from a merciless economy that has seen food prices rocket up 10 to 30 percent over last year.
"People are extending their grocery budgets exponentially by shopping at stores like this," said Greg Martin, director of operations at Banana Box Wholesale Grocery in Kutztown. Martin procures salvage - imperfect products from manufacturers and other sources - and sells it to places like B.B.'s.
There are about 30 such stores in the state, with the Amish and Mennonites running about one-third of them, according to Jeff Young of Buy-Rite Liquidators of Blandon, Berks County. Many stores were started in the last two years, Young added.
Blandon runs four salvage stores and also serves as a supplier to many others, including B.B.'s. He said he knew of no such stores in New Jersey or Philadelphia.
Young said that business is up 15 percent in the last three months.
"We're seeing more customers in our stores, and we're seeing people buy more products," he said.
And more and more Amish seem to be getting into the business. "It's turning into a subculture for them," Martin said.
Increasing land prices make traditional farming difficult for the Amish, so they search out other cottage industries in which to prosper, said Stephen Scott, an expert on Amish life at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County.
"The Pennsylvania Amish people are known for their great frugality," Scott said. And salvage stores fit their character, he added.
At B.B.'s one recent day, the large, white, metal building was packed with overwhelmingly non-Amish customers.
Inside, young men in Amish garb stocked the shelves, while young women in bonnets worked the cash registers.
Skylights provide the light in the store, whose owners eschew electric light, as per Amish tradition.
The store's fans (there is no air conditioning), refrigeration and cash registers are powered by a variety of methods, including diesel engines, propane and batteries, according to Wendell Slabach, B.B.'s non-Amish controller.
There are a few more flies than at the Acme, but overall the store is clean, and, despite the dings, much of the merchandise doesn't look any worse for wear.
"B.B.'s is the Mercedes, the Cadillac of grocery-outlet stores," Martin said. "Wow. No electricity and prices I haven't seen since the early 1970s."
In a typical suburban supermarket, all seems pristine and uniform. Here, things are a little quirky, a little off. And longtime customers come to think of shopping at B.B.'s as an adventure.
So they don't mind the occasional Raid bug-spray can without a cap, or the Ocean Spray juice container with a "Do Not Return to Stock" sticker on it.
"People who shop here are sensible and wise," said Susannah Benson, 67, a Lancaster County home-school evaluator. "And some are poor and desperately need this store."
She pushed a cart that included a box of two dozen dented, 28-ounce tomato cans, all for $3. They're fine if the cans aren't swollen or cut at the seams, experts say.
She also had 18 varying-size boxes of crackers, the lot for $2.
"And they're not all beyond their 'best by' date," she enthused.
"Best by" dates (meaning best to eat by a certain date) are placed by manufacturers on products to inform consumers when an item's quality is at its maximum, said Slabach.
Industry experts say that often, "best by" dates mean little, and some believe they're nothing more than a gimmick to get people to replenish supplies sooner.
Expiration dates can be different, and B.B.'s shoppers are aware that one must keep a sharp eye out.
"I've discovered that foods containing canola oils don't taste good if they're expired," she said.
State and federal laws don't prohibit the sale of expired foods, except for baby formula and liquid milk, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. And the Food and Drug Administration doesn't prohibit the sale of expired over-the-counter medicine, said Chris Kelly, an FDA spokesman.
There was some expired medicine at B.B.'s this month: a small packet of Benadryl allergy tablets with a stamp that read, "Exp. 11/07"; and a small packet of Sudafed PE, stamped "Exp. Oct. 07."
"It shouldn't have been there," said store manager Enno Jurisson, a Mennonite. "Our policy is not to have it."
B.B.'s also had pastrami and bacon that were four days beyond their expiration dates for sale.
"If the pastrami were slimy and green, we'd make them pull it off the shelf," said Nicole Cullison, spokeswoman from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
The department inspects salvage stores once a year. They have no record of customer complaints about B.B.'s, Cullison said.
"I check their medicines very carefully and I don't touch mayonnaise beyond the expiration date," said shopper Lauren Woodburn, 51, of Forest Hill, Md. "Expired cereal is OK if you eat it right away.
"But if you're willing to check the dates, there is no comparison between this store and regular supermarkets. Prices overall are outrageous. But there's no inflation here. It's worth the extra gas to come."