The Baltimore sugar plant opened in 1922, and was owned at the time by the American Sugar Refining Co., or Amstar. In 1984, Amstar Corp. was sold for $428 million to investment banking firm Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts and Co., which sold it two years later to Merrill Lynch Capital Partners Inc. Tate & Lyle bought the company in 1988.
Then, two politically connected brothers who fled the Castro regime and later built a sugar empire in Florida agreed in 2001 to purchase the Domino Sugar company for $180 million.
“We view Domino as synonymous with sugar in America, and we are very excited because it fits very well in our plan,” Alfonso Fanjul (pronounced fan-HOOL) said in an interview at the plant. “We could not conceive of a better brand.”
But even more than the brand name itself, the “Domino Sugar” sign is an icon in Baltimore’s skyline.
Each evening, it takes 15 minutes from the moment the timer clicks on for the noble gases to be ready to paint the town red. Showtime zips through hundreds of miles of wire and 230 transformers until it makes a grand entrance in 650 elongated glass tubes bent in the shapes that spell out America’s No. 1 sugar.
The result is picture perfect. Countless people have made the sign the backdrop for their snapshots. People have called the refinery or arrived unannounced at the front gate, begging to have the sign illuminated just for them.
“You’re suddenly talking to someone who’s having a birthday or bar mitzvah and they want you to turn the sign on,” says Mickey Seither, who was in charge of the Domino sign for a decade and is now a senior vice president. “And I’m like, “Well, I can. But it’s noon. You won’t see it.’”
Reporting from the Baltimore Sun archives