Congratulations go to Tillerman yet again for providing the correct answer to the latest quiz — the Domino Sugar plant in Baltimore, Maryland!
I drove here last week to take part in a very rare event — a coveted tour of the Domino Sugar Plant under the iconic sign visible from the Inner Harbor. Why is it rare? Because there are currently NO public tours offered by Domino Sugar; they are one-off events typically reserved for just VIPs and other lucky individuals or small groups.
Wait… what? The Domino Sugar plant is still OPEN and in operation? But I thought that Under Armour was expanding into the lot that the Domino Sugar plant was on, like they are for all the other properties in that area!
Sorry to disappoint you, but Domino Sugar is both open and in operation — like it has been for the past 93 years. In fact, it’s the last of the big manufacturers remaining in Baltimore that used to dominate the Inner Harbor in decades past. Even though the plant was initially built back in 1922, portions of it have been constantly upgraded over the years, so it’s a blend of the best of the old and new, with state-of-the-art equipment where it’s needed (including a new multi-million dollar hardware upgrade being installed at the time of our tour) and time-proven technology where it’s not. And no, Under Armour is not displacing Domino Sugar, as much as they would love to, I’m sure.
People tend to think of the plant being closed because… well… other than the big iconic sign being lit up at night, it just doesn’t look very active. But don’t let that fool you. 442 people presently work here on-site, and close to another 200 are employed elsewhere.
And when I say Domino is big, I don’t really mean big… I mean freaking immense. This is food production done to an industrial scale. The Raw Sugar Warehouse alone is the size of a blimp hanger. And energy consumption? Yes, please — a natural gas line feeds an on-site power plant to the tune of 17-megawatts. And they turn any unusable raw sugar by-products back into power, which they can sell back to the grid.
Take a guess as to how much sugar leaves this facility every day. A couple of trucks? Maybe several tons of product? Oh, heavens no; you really need to readjust your sense of scale by several orders of magnitude. Try 6.6 MILLION pounds of sugar per DAY. That’s 6,600,000 pounds — or over 3,250 TONS — of finished product… Every. Single. Day. How much is that annually? How about 14 percent of the sugar needs for the entire US — and that includes both consumer and commercial consumption — just from this one sugar factory.
And just what goes out the door? Some 40 different products — both retail and bulk — via 23 different packaging lines, with a purity level of 99.5 percent. From the tiny single-serving sugar packets used by mom-and-pop diner restaurants (92 billion packets are produced per year!), to the huge 2,000 pound bags of crystallized sugar used in commercial baking operations. Powdered sugar. Brown sugar. Liquid sugar syrup used by soda manufacturers. Pharmaceutical-grade sugar produced in clean-room environments (the inert part used in tablet production). Sugar drink mixes, flavored sugars, etc. The list goes on.
And how is it packaged? Single-serving packets. 1-pound boxes. 10-pound paper bags. Retail-sized plastic tubs. 2,000-pound polypropylene sacks. And for their truly BIG industrial customers (like Hershey, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft, and General Mills) tractor-trailer tankers and railroad tanker cars.
And what feeds that insatiable appetite for sugar? Not trucks. Not trains. Only deep-water ocean-going ships that draw as much as 38-feet when fully loaded. Gigantic bulk-cargo ships — 600-feet-long and 100-feet-wide — filled to the brim with raw cane sugar (no beet sugar is processed at the Baltimore plant), unloaded at a rate of 10 million pounds of raw sugar per day. Over 40 ships per year, or roughly one per week — and the biggest of them can deliver over 95 million pounds of sugar at one time, taking some 16 days to unload, one 4,500-pound bucket of sugar at a time.
We were given a short PowerPoint presentation, then asked to put on all the safety gear they provided — hair nets, hard hats, safety vests, and earplugs. Safety gear? Oh yes, it can be deadly at times, which you can read about here. We had been told ahead of time to wear solid shoes, preferably boots (no flip-flops or sandals).
Once the tour was well under way, we understood why; it was a heavy industrial site and sugar was everywhere. Those small rocks we keep kicking with our boots? Clumps of raw sugar. That nasty looking puddle of black tar we just stepped in? That’s actually molasses. Sugar particles — big and small — drifted down from above us, with the bigger ones tapping out a beat on our hard hats. Sugar permeated the air with a sweet molasses and brown sugar aroma, not the offensive stench that wafts from sugar beet refineries.
Sadly, the tour was not all-inclusive. We only went to a few locations within the site and could take photos at just three of them — we were told that the rest were off-limits due to proprietary concerns.
First we were led to the Raw Sugar Warehouse to witness the use of road-construction-sized end-loaders to move the raw sugar from there to other locations, then we hiked to the private deep-water terminal to see the raw sugar being off-loaded from the huge bulk-cargo vessel. After that we were led to one of the 10-pound bag packaging lines, then to a profoundly noisy floor where all the single-serving sugar packets were filled, sealed, and boxed — at such a high speed that strobes were used to count the packets as they were being spit out of the packaging machine; truly a deafening place to work in.
Finally — nearing the end of our tour — we were led to the roof of the factory to see the iconic Domino Sugar sign. From the Inner Harbor, the Domino sign looks like the size of an interstate highway billboard sign. But no… that would be far too small. The Domino sign — like everything else at the site — is huge; it measures 120-feet by 70-feet. The dot on the “i” alone is six-feet tall!
And the view was superlative, as you can see.
Want to learn more? Detailed information about both the operational Baltimore facility and the recently sold Brooklyn site can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. A Baltimore Sun photo essay can be found here (double-click on the first image, then use the right arrow key to advance to the next image in the series), and another short photo essay can be found here. And here are the movies that have been made there: