A distance of less than a mile stands between the condo towers and hotels of Harbor East and the Domino Sugar plant across the Patapsco River, the northern shore representing aspirations of prosperity, the southern shore representing a vanishing past.
Baltimore’s waterfront was once the city’s economic engine, producing canned oysters, spices, umbrellas, garments, hats, ships and steel. One by one all of them shut down or moved except for Domino. The company is the answer to a question tour guides at the Baltimore Museum of Industry like to ask visitors: What company is responsible for the lone working smokestack on the waterfront? Domino Sugar.
The plant, opened in 1922, and its LED “Domino Sugars” sign are a cultural icon and emotional landmark on the industrial landscape, which now includes four new sugar silos.
Aided by government tariffs, quotas, loans, price supports, and policies that limit the supply of cheaper imported sugar, producing sugar in the U.S. remains profitable, even as the manufacturing industry in the city and the country has declined. It’s profitable enough to support 540 jobs (the starting wage is $25 an hour) at the Domino plant and justify the construction of the silos, which became fully operational this month.
Plant spokesman Peter O’Malley said the new silos, which each can store 3.5 million pounds of refined sugar, have quadrupled the plant’s total capacity, allowing for the “decoupling” of the processing operation from the packaging operation. In other words, the plant is free to refine as much sugar as it can without worry that it will cause a backup on the packaging side; conversely, the packaging operation always has ample supply of product to pack.
Prior to the addition of the new silos, the factory could produce 6 million pounds of refined sugar per day, but only had the capacity to store 4.6 million pounds. Now it can store a total of 18.6 million pounds.
“It was something that was needed, and had been considered for a number of years,” O’Malley said.
The need to expand preceded a fire at the plant in April 2021, when flames destroyed one of the sugar sheds, used to store raw sugar coming off ships before it is refined. That shed had been in use since the plant was built.
“We were up and running in a matter of days,” O’Malley said. “Our engineers and workforce came up with workarounds.” The plant resumed full operations in about a week.
The factory produces several types of sugar: white granulated; light brown; dark brown; powdered sugar; liquid sugar; and molasses, which is a byproduct of refining sugar that is produced earlier in the process. The refined sugar is then packed into packages as small as 1 pound and as large as 2,000 pounds.
The sugar made at the Baltimore plant is distributed along the East Coast, as far south as the Carolinas, and as far west as Illinois, transported mostly by truck and also by rail. It is one of three U.S. refineries operated by parent company American Sugar Refining. The largest is in Louisiana, one of the three states where the country’s sugar cane production is concentrated. Texas and Florida are the other two. Hawaii, once famous for its sugar cane fields, stopped making sugar in 2016.
Sugar can also be made from sugar beets, but the Baltimore Domino plant makes only cane sugar. While some of the raw sugar comes from cane grown in Florida, most comes from Central and South America, and Africa, arriving on ships that are offloaded by cranes at the Domino dock. The sugar cane is milled, shredded and pressed before it is exported to the Baltimore plant, which is growing 19 years after the Domino plant in Brooklyn, New York, ceased refining sugar due to lack of demand.
The Baltimore plant even survived years of demonization when sugar was variously called toxic and a poison, and blamed for obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Sentiment eventually shifted, with scrutiny focused on corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. Cane sugar, what O’Malley called “real sugar,” is having a new and favorable moment.
“Consumers have become more in tune with what they eat,” said Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of the Sugar Association, a trade group representing growers and processors. She said obesity has increased even as sugar consumption has decreased. (According to the National Institutes of Health, sugar consumption decreased significantly from 1999 to 2008, but remained above recommended levels; a 2020 Harvard study found the percentage of heavy consumers of sugary beverages fell significantly between 2003 and 2016.)
“The idea that a single focus on reducing added sugars will solve all of our health problems hasn’t really panned out,” Gaine said. “When consumers stop and think about it, real sugar makes more sense than the rapidly increasing sweetener alternatives,” she said, including beet sugar as “real.” “As long as real sugar is consumed as part of a balanced diet, consumers like the fact that real sugar is grown, not made.”