Old School Film Hack

A Tour of the Domino Sugar Plant in Baltimore

The iconic Domino Sugar sign -- Baltimore, Maryland (April 2015)iPhone 6 Plus + 29/2.2

The iconic Domino Sugar sign — Baltimore, Maryland (April 2015)
iPhone 6 Plus + 29/2.2

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.

This is roughly 7 million pounds of raw sugar -- Baltimore, Maryland (April 2015)iPhone 6 Plus + 29/2.2

This is roughly 7 million pounds of raw sugar — Baltimore, Maryland (April 2015)
iPhone 6 Plus + 29/2.2

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.

Note the big tire tracks from the industrial end-loader -- Baltimore, Maryland (April 2015)iPhone 6 Plus + 29/2.2

Note the big tire tracks from the industrial end-loader — Baltimore, Maryland (April 2015)
iPhone 6 Plus + 29/2.2

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.

Raw sugar being unloaded from an immense cargo ship -- Baltimore, Maryland (April 2015)iPhone 6 Plus + 29/2.2

Raw sugar being unloaded from an immense cargo ship — Baltimore, Maryland (April 2015)
iPhone 6 Plus + 29/2.2

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.

The view of the Inner Harbor from the top of the Domino plant  -- Baltimore, Maryland (April 2015)iPhone 6 Plus + 29/2.2

The view of the Inner Harbor from the top of the Domino plant — Baltimore, Maryland (April 2015)
iPhone 6 Plus + 29/2.2

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:

36 thoughts on “A Tour of the Domino Sugar Plant in Baltimore

  1. Larry McGraw

    Neat presentation of the industrial scale required to put one ingredient of our food on our table. I have been in several food production plants of this scale and they are all just as impressive. Good one Mitch


    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      That’s cool. Different strokes for different folks. I got my first serious camera around that same age — a Pentax MX. Sweet camera and one that I carried with me everywhere I went.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Robin S. Kent

    This was a really interesting essay. Can’t believe I missed the “What and Where?” even though I had fair warning. I have a particular interest in the subject since I had occasion to visit Cuba in the mid-1980s and visited several of the sugar refineries there. Surprisingly, they were equally impressive, although not nearly as sophisticated in technology or as diverse in their product line.Thanks for the extensive detail. A very thorough report. Who knew this going on every day in that building?


    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      Thanks. I certainly didn’t. Except for the big neon sign, it always looks low-key and unassuming, so I was completely blown away by what we saw there.


  3. thebluespade

    “….not the offensive stench that wafts from sugar beet refineries.”

    I not much of a fan of high fructose corn syrup either. Anyway, thank you for sharing your inside tour with all.

    BTW, your shot of the Domino Sugar Sign was sweet too. That sign reminds me of the H&C Coffee neon sign (likely the smaller of the two compared) in Roanoke, Va.


    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      When I lived in Idaho, my elementary school was less than a half mile from a sugar beet refinery — which smelled very much like a paper mill. The stench would permeate our clothing and we would reek of the stuff for days.

      Glad you liked the post!


  4. Marcus

    When something gets into the millions of pounds I just can’t imagine it any more. That’s a staggering amount of sugar going through the factory every day. Where does all that sugar cane come from? Amazing.
    I liked the article and especially the first photo of the sign. It’s a good composition and the iPhone6 does a great job.


    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      Thank you kindly, Marcus.

      They have one huge ship arrive every 10-12 days, delivering between 40 and 90 million pounds of raw sugar. The ships come from wherever sugar cane is grown, including their own property down in Florida.

      As big as the Raw Sugar Shed is, they’ve never seen it full. And they’ve only gotten close to running out of raw sugar once in the past eight years. So they have the just-in-time delivery method down cold.


  5. Pingback: A Tour of the Domino Sugar Plant in Baltimore | Exploratorius | James Zannetti Photo

  6. Pingback: One Sweet Tale: Sugar Molds from the Shutt and Tool Sugar Refinery | Maryland History by the Object

  7. Gypsy Bev

    Wow! 6.6 million pounds of sugar a day at one plant…that some thought was closed. Great informative article. My grandson lives in Sugar Land and I can remember when Imperial had a large raw sugar facility there. Enjoy exploring the vast universe so think I need to connect to your blog.


  8. KingRaized

    I could find nothing on where exactly domino suger imports it’s raw sugar from today. Since Domino Sugar initially imported it’s sugar from the island of Puerto Rico in it’s inception back in the 1900s. The islands people were exploited and so was the island itself destroyed by the company. So I would like to know what island or country is presently producing it’s sugar? The most important part you left out of this piece


    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      Sugar is a commodity now. We were told that they source their raw sugar from locations all over the world, including the southern US, the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and Asia.


  9. Anne Sandler

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and the Domino Sugar Plant Tour. I’m a little over an hour from the C & H plant, but they don’t even allow us on the property. We can shoot the outside, but from the outside! This gives me an idea of what’s going on inside!


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