[StBernard] The Domino's sugar refinery in Arabi turns 100, with robots

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Tue May 19 21:32:14 EDT 2009

The Domino's sugar refinery in Arabi turns 100, with robots
Posted by Judy Walker, Food editor, The Times-Picayune May 19, 2009 2:00PM

Courtesy of Domino

An overhead view of the Refinery taken in the late 1920s or early 1930s.If
the people who built the Domino Sugar's Chalmette Refinery in 1909 were to
come back today, "it would feel familiar," said plant manager Pete Maraia.
The refining process is pretty much the same. Only with robots.

Maraia gave a tour of North America's largest sugar refinery on Monday, the
day the plant owned by American Sugar Refining, Inc., turned 100. The huge
plant, built of bricks made north of Lake Ponchartrain, took four years to
construct and opened on May 17, 1909. Today, it produces more than 2 billion
pounds of all kinds of sugar products a year, about 19 percent of the
country's cane sugar.

Much of the work force joined local dignitaries, politicians, cane growers
and many others under tents to mark the 100 year anniversary. The company
made a $20,000 donation to St. Bernard Community Foundation to build
scoreboards for youth recreation, and gave a $500 scholarship to Nunez
Community College culinary student Rachael Rebouche, who designed the cake
for the event. The cake was topped with a replica of The White House, an
1839 James-Dakin-designed landmark building on the grounds.

On the way to the plant's dock on the Mississippi River, Maraia said the
plant refines 7 million pounds of sugar a day for home, commercial and
industrial use, in sizes from little table packets to railcars. It goes to
supermarkets and many of the nation's biggest food companies: Pillsbury,
Nabisco, M&M Mars and more.

Your Skittles were here, in essence.

Courtesy of Domino

The Daily Picayune article announcing the opening of the Chalmette Refinery
on May 17, 1909. At the waterfront, two barges, each holding 185,000 pounds
of raw sugar, were being unloaded by huge sugar cranes that claw it out.
Maraia said 15 to 19 barges unload each day, bringing raw sugar from
Louisiana, Texas and Florida. Until the past 11 or 12 years, raw sugar came
here from all over the world, from as far away as Australia.

"It's an all-natural process," Maraia said of refining. "We use no chemicals
to refine the sugar. A lot of our customers want cane sugar because it's

A faint caramel scent permeates the air around the refinery, the smell of
"affination," the technical term for the syrup around the crystals of raw
sugar. Maraia said raw sugar is 98 percent sucrose and 2 percent impurities,
and the refining process brings it up to 99.9 percent pure sucrose.

Blackstrap molasses is a byproduct of refining. Every 100 pounds of sugar
yields 1.5 pounds of blackstrap molasses.

"People are confused about molasses because there are so many different
grades," Maraia said. "Blackstrap has the lowest sucrose content."

>From that 100 pounds of raw sugar, 82 pounds become white "extra fine" or

table sugar, and 3.5 to 4 pounds become three types of brown sugar: dark,
light, and a medium that is sold only commercially. Two pounds becomes
liquid sugar and two pounds is powdered.

The giant cranes dump raw sugar onto movable conveyor belts, where it forms
mountains inside three raw sugar sheds. One can see dozens of different
shades of light brown in the bluffs and angles of the towering piles,
indicating how pure it is. The paler it is, the more the refinery pays for

Courtesy of Domino

This is a picture of the facility taken in 1990 from the entrance into the
Refinery. The palm trees lining the walkway to the White House are home to
families of green parrots.
"When you're looking for raw sugar, look for the dark stuff," Maraia said,
for the most flavor.

The first part of the refinishing process is the Wash House, where
affination is washed off raw sugar with hot water and a centrifuge process
similar to a three-minute wash in a washing machine (only with much hotter
water, at 180 degrees).

"In essence, every part of the process is taking out a little color or
refining it a little more," Maraia said.

A big tank-car-washing station sits on the grounds, for cleaning the tank
cars that ship liquid sugar. Most of the customers for the dissolved mixture
of 86-percent sugar and 32-percent water goes to candy and ice cream

Other specialty products include a mixture of 8-percent honey and sugar in
granulated and powdered forms, used largely by makers of dry rubs. Domino
makes a quick-flow pourable molasses. The spicy Sugar and Cinnamon room
turns out nothing but the small 3-ounce shakers, labeled with Domino, C&H
and Redpath brands.

Powdered sugar is just that, with 3 percent cornstarch added as an
anti-caking agent.

"If you want it without the cornstarch, just put (sugar) in a blender and
beat the heck out of it," Maraia said.

Courtesy of Domino

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Chalmette Refinary was flooded as high
as nine feet in some parts. One old-school product is the sugar cube, still
made on circa-1930 equipment. Damp sugar is pressed into dice-size molds,
then turned out onto a conveyor belt. It hardens as it's baked in a long

"We make 500 cases a shift. That's not a lot. There's not a big demand,"
Maraia said. "The sugar packet has taken over the point of the sugar cube."

In the Production Center, the upper floors pop out 2-pound bags of dark
brown sugar; bags of white sugar in 4-pound, 5-pound and 10-pound bags, and
much more. Four machines create and fill the familiar bags for the white
sugar from two rolls of paper. On the assembly line, the bags are filled,
torn off and sealed. Each machine makes 120 five-pound bags a minute.

Five more machines do nothing but spin out paper packets of sugar, dropping
them into boxes. An entire separate multi-story building holds nothing but
the paper and plastic packaging goods for all the different products.

The opposite of the sugar packet is the 2,000-pound tote bag labeled SUGAR,
which are hoisted into boxcars for shipment by rail. The company fills and
dispatches 350 to 400 totes a day.

The ground floor of the production center is all new post-Katrina. The
refinery was up and running after 98 days. Rack after rack of overhead
conveyor belts bring the products from upstairs to be packaged atop

"When we came back, we had to clean up and modernize" the area, Maraia said.
Part of the modernization is four giant yellow robots that use clamps and
suction cups to lift bags and boxes from the belts to the palettes. Another
automated arm spins stretch wrap around and around each palette. The upgrade
allowed the company to increase its industrial and grocery business, Maraia

Part of the ground floor is used for warehousing products, ready to be
shipped. The palettes stretch into the distance.

"Three warehouses on this site hold 11 million pounds" and there are more
warehouses in eastern New Orleans, Maraia said.

The walls of the plant manager's office, in the new post-Katrina building
that replaced trailers last July, are covered with pre-1905 wooden patterns.
They were used to make the cast-iron machinery when the refinery was built.

Food editor Judy Walker can be reached at jwalker at timespicayune.com or

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