Inside Red Hook’s Maraschino Cherry Factory

All photos by Jane Bruce

The first thing you notice about the factory for Dell’s Maraschino Cherries, a warehouse-like structure that stretches over most of a city block, is the smell. That syrupy, sugary, almost-candied fake cherry scent that fills the air when you open a jar of maraschino cherries is everywhere. It permeates the air for close to a one-block radius around Dell’s. The factory, and the smell, have been a part of the neighborhood for years: Dell’s first opened in 1948, when Red Hook was more a manufacturing zone than the upscale, slightly set-apart neighborhood it is today. (In 2010, this older Brooklyn met the newer version of the borough when local beekeepers complained that their hives’ honey had been tinged red, thanks to bees feasting on the sticky, sweet run-off from the Dell’s factory. The owners of the company worked with scientists to curtail the red-honey crisis.)

After sixty-six years in operation, Dell’s owner, Arthur Mondella, had decided to invest $5 million into investing the cherry factory’s equipment. The new, computerized machinery will allow the factory to churn out more cherries more quickly, as well as more accurately measure the levels of sweetness and acidity in their jarred fruit. Mondella, whose grandfather founded Dell’s, works in an office in the factory. I met him there with Brooklyn’s intrepid photographer, Jane Bruce, to get a tour of the operations. Mondella, whose office had a sideboard filled with jars that read FLAVOR SCIENCE in matter-of-fact lettering, was clicking through the various security camera footage of the plant, displayed on a flatscreen television hanging on the back wall. He introduced us to the plant manager, Frank Fernandez, who gave both of us hair nets and brought us around the back to the factory floor.

One thing that you probably don’t realize about maraschino cherries, at least I didn’t, is that the way the cherries arrive at the factory is not in their sweet, right-off-the-tree state. Nope. Cherries in that volume (and we’re talking an insane amount of volume: Dell’s processes 400,000 pounds of cherries a week, which makes its annual output in the tens of millions) come packed in brine, cured in a mixture that’s made of calcium chloride and sulfur dioxide. It bleaches the cherries into a goldenrod color, so they look more like grapes than those plump, ruby red fruits you snack on. And it means that walking into the room where enormous vats of the cherries, in various states of being maraschino-ed, shall we say, is an abrupt change from the cough syrupy, slightly nostalgic scent of corn syrup and sweetened cherry. It’s more like an assault on your lungs from all that sulfur, something rotten-eggy and chemical and very strong. A sign on the wall blared “This area may contain allergens and/or sensative [sic] ingredients.”

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The room was lined with enormous white vats of cherries, which are imported both domestically and internationally for the cause. The cherries are washed repeatedly to reduce the sulfur content. It takes about a week to then transform those yellow, unappealing-looking pickled cherries into cocktail-ready garnishes, and the process is basically cleaning them and marinating them in a mixture of red dye, citric acid, and sugar. Originally, maraschino cherries were infused with flavor using the liqueur of the same name. But thanks to prohibition, mass-produced cherries like these use corn syrup and flavorants to get that maraschino taste. Along the line of white vats, you could see the cherries in various stages of change: From yellow, to a marbled, more natural-looking state, and finally turned into the familiar near-neon bright red. The cherries that had been fully maraschino-ed looked like an enormous chest full of plastic jewels, stage prop versions of themselves.

Fernandez walked us to the next room, where the cherries went from being processed to being sorted into jars, capped, and placed on cardboard pallets for transport around the country. Dell’s serves both retail and wholesale markets, meaning that they have everything from reasonable little 10 oz. jars to enormous gallon containers, the latter mostly going out to businesses like ice cream parlors, restaurants, and bars. (Their customers include big chains like Checker’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, and TGIFriday’s. If you’ve had a sundae or a blended drink in any of those places, odds are you’ve had a Dell’s cherry.) This is where all those million of dollars is making a difference, helping to monitor the amount of cherries places in each jar and eventually, Fernandez explained, helping automate the packing process, too.

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When we visited, it was the end of the day, and just one line was operating. Fernandez strode over to one of the giant white bins we had seen in the other room, snapped on a sterile glove, and reached into the vat to grab a handful of the glistening fruit.  He offered one to Jane and I, and we sampled the cherries. They were sweet and luscious, with that faint chemical tang, and reminded me of bartering with my younger brothers for who would get the cherry on an ice cream dessert.  From the vat, the cherries emptied onto a line where they were measured out into glass jars, each shimmering in the fluorescent light. The jars whizzed passed, cloaked in puffs of steam, through each station: capping, labeling, and into a central area where a factory worker scooped the jars into a waiting cardboard pallet and into another wrapping machine.

If you grew up in a certain era, footage of factories is the stuff of childhood memory: All those Mr. Rogers ventures into industrial zones, the classic video of how crayons are made. There is something very soothing about seeing things going in proper order, going from point A to point B. It was like that watching the cherry jar line in the Dell’s factory, with the added commotion of the workings of an actual manufacturing plant: Clankings and spraying water and Fernandez trying to speak loud enough to be heard. But there’s also something a little bit eerie about seeing the mass production of food items, the continual churn of the machines processing things that were already nutritious and edible into junk food.

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I asked Fernandez if he ate maraschino cherries after working with them all day, or if he was sick of them. “I taste every batch,” he told me. But I suspect after a day around the blossoming scent of the factory, you might want to avoid the whole thing. That’s what I thought as we headed back to the bus from Red Hook, smelling like a giant cough drop, my notebook spattered with red syrup stains. But later that night, as I was fixing myself a drink, I considered one of the glass jars that Fernandez had handed me as a souvenir on the way out. I popped the lid, a poured out one of the cherries into the tumbler, along with a little bit of the juice, into a Manhattan. And you know what? It was delicious.

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