Back in November, Brooklyn photographer Jane Bruce and I visited Dell’s Maraschino Factory in Red Hook for a factory tour. On Monday, Arthur Mondella, the owner of Dell’s who ushered us into his office on that windy November day, shot himself in his private bathroom after police uncovered an industrial-scale marijuana growing operation underneath the factory. It’s a weird, tragic, awful story. Police also found a collection of pricey vehicles, including a Rolls Royce, a Porsche, and a Harley Davidson. Reports on the incident, which the NYPD are still investigating, frequently compare the cherry weed scheme to Breaking Bad, as that seems to be the most readily available cultural touchstone for “unlikely drug dealer operating out of small family business.”
Bob Woodward, I’m not. During our visit to the factory, we certainly didn’t think that it was a massive front for a drug operation. At most we thought that things seemed a little bit off, but they were all situations easily explained away by my lack of familiarity with factory visits in general. (To be fair, reporters from the Post and Daily News before us, all there to take a look at the recently updated machinery, didn’t either. After all, you generally don’t invite the media to poke around your drug front.) But during our visit, Jane and I did notice some activity that seemed unusual. (And you know, hindsight.) Here are some signs that the factory you’re visiting might be a drug front.
1. Excessive focus on security
Granted, I know very little about the operations of a maraschino cherry factory, generally. But the levels of security around the place when Mondella brought us in seemed somewhat unusual. At the beginning of our visit, he brought Jane and me into his office. One wall was taken up by an enormous flatscreen TV screen that showed security footage of every part of the factory. Mondella flipped through the different cameras as we chatted, and there seemed to be cameras far in excess of the usual monitoring of employees.(His desk also had several jars that just said FLAVOR SCIENCE in large lettering, which no doubt will feature late in the AMC television series based on this story.) He also grilled us about our intentions about visiting the cherry factory, which we had already worked through with the factory publicist. (And honestly, we were pretty wide-eyed and excited to be in a Mr. Rogers-like industrial setting; it wasn’t like we were going to do a takedown of the maraschino cherry industry.) At the time we chalked it up to not wanting a leak of proprietary information. He also asked us not to take photos of staff at the factory. (Again, fair enough, but retrospectively, um…)
2. Factory doesn’t seem to be operating at full capacity
We visited on a Friday afternoon, so it made sense that the operations might not be at full capacity. But the reason that the factory had invited press into their operation to begin with was a multi-million dollar upgrade of their line machinery, so you’d think they’d have that on full display. Not so, at least when we visited. Only one line was operating, and it seemed staffed at a fairly low level, given the volume of cherries that Dell’s put out.
3. Smell test
Police apparently started investigating Dell’s on a tip, following a faint scent of marijuana emanating from the factory. Let me tell you: Their noses must be better trained than mine. Because when you think about it, what better way to cover an enormous marijuana growing operation than a maraschino cherry factory: There’s the overwhelming sulfurous scent of cherries being preserved wafting under that syrupy sweet cherry smell that overpowers almost everything around. You can smell maraschino cherries for blocks around the factory. It’s a pretty good odor mask for weed.
Police are still looking into just how much of Dell’s was a front. Obviously, the place really did produce massive quantities of cherries: They supplied the likes of TGI Friday’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. We even have a couple glass jars of cherries at the office, mementoes that the floor manager gave us on our way out, objects that have gained a sort of creepy resonance since this all went down. Add this one to the eternal lesson of things not being what they seem.