Like most businesses near the waterfront in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, Arthur Mondella’s maraschino cherry factory had seen its ups and downs. It survived Superstorm Sandy, recession and America’s finicky tastes to keep churning out millions of the sweet, gooey accoutrements that grace Shirley Temples, hot fudge sundaes and Manhattans.
When investigators checking on possible environmental violations visited the business Tuesday, though, Mondella’s confident facade collapsed.
After excusing himself to use the toilet, Mondella shot himself to death, bringing a shocking end to the cherry maker’s life and leaving officials to sort out how much of his money came from growing marijuana and how much came from maraschino cherries.
By Wednesday, Mondella’s story was captivating New York and drawing comparisons to the TV hit “Breaking Bad,” about a struggling high school chemistry teacher who turns to making methamphetamine to take care of his family.
There was no indication that Mondella’s business, Dell’s Maraschino Cherries, was struggling. In fact, he had described things as on the upswing following a rebranding effort and an investment in equipment to modernize production.
“At this point, the maraschino cherry is just another commodity,” Mondella told the Wall Street Journal last year. “We’re trying to change that.”
Law enforcement officials, though, say it appears the 67-year-old family business also housed a marijuana enterprise, which was revealed when investigators smelled weed while checking reports that cherry juice and chemical-laced byproducts were being dumped into the sewer.
According to local news reports, they noticed something amiss on a wall and upon closer inspection realized the wall was fake. It concealed what some local media have described as a huge stash of marijuana, cash and luxury cars.
On Wednesday, there was no sign of business at Dell’s, whose modern machinery was silent and whose employee door was closed. Investigators were entering the factory and leaving with boxes of evidence as wind blew in off the iced-in shores of the nearby Buttermilk Channel. Feral cats and a few dog walkers wandered through the quiet neighborhood, which is far from any subway line and a mix of industrial warehouses, single-family homes and small businesses.
Lights used to promote plant growth were seen being removed from the factory Wednesday, and portions of a Porsche, Rolls-Royce and a Harley were seized at the site.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office has not provided details on what was found inside the sprawling brick factory, but it confirmed that the initial visit had nothing to do with drugs and that Mondella shot himself after initially cooperating with inspectors.
Mondella, 57, was well known in the neighborhood, and his business had been featured frequently in local and national media. As recently as January, in a story that appeared in Crain’s, Mondella recalled accompanying his grandfather, Dell’s founder, to work and getting to ride in the forklift.
Mondella, who took over the business in 1983, told Crain’s that the firm produced more than a billion cherries a year, had $20 million in annual revenue and was successfully fending off competition from the country’s few other producers of maraschino cherries.
In recent years, Mondella embarked on a major project to boost production with new equipment and more automation. “The only way to survive is by adapting,” he told Crain’s.
“It’s sad. It’s very sad,” a local businessman, Joe Morrine, told TV news crews clustered outside the factory door. Morrine said it made no sense that the factory would have been used as a front for a drug enterprise. “They’re a legitimate business that has been around for a long time. Lots of forklifts moving in and out,” he said.
Ethan Casucci, who knew Mondella, agreed. “That doesn’t seem right,” he told the Daily News. “He seemed fine.”
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