The Air is Sweet: An Inside Peek at Sweet ‘n Low

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This article is one of a series I’m writing as a Visiting Artist at BLDG92 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

More than 70 years ago, on an unassuming street corner in Brooklyn, a cafeteria operated on the bottom floor of a red brick tenement.  Its location across from the Navy Yard made the diner a great success during the hustle and bustle of World War II, but business started waning as the Yard’s workers were laid off in post-war peace.  The owners, Ben and Betty Eisenstadt were losing money fast; until, as the story goes, Mrs. Eisenstadt got the idea of using a machine designed to fill bags of tea to fill packets of sugar.  No more messy, open bowls on the table; sugar could be sold in individual packets.

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Betty was also a chronic dieter, and the combination of her brains and her waist begat Sweet ‘n Low, the first artificial sweetener marketed as a fat-reducing aid to the general public.  Much more about the fascinating history of Brooklyn’s own Sweet ‘n Low can be found in the book by the same name.  The company, now known as Cumberland Packing, still packs Sweet N’ Low into the bright pink packets on the same corner tenement in Brooklyn; but they’ve also expanded their operations into a massive warehouse on Navy Yard premises. When the Navy Yard was closed as a military base in the 1960s, the area was turned over to industrial development, and Cumberland packing is one of their oldest tenants. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the entire operation.

The very first thing I noticed when I entered the Sweet N’ Low packing facilities was that the AIR TASTED SWEET. You can eat the sweet taste right out of the air; you can lick it from your skin; and eventually, I imagine, you can rub it from your eyes and cough it up from your lungs. It is everywhere–and so is PINK, so much pink! Sweet pinkness everywhere you look.

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The Sweet N’ Low packing plant was on an intimate scale, shorts hallways and narrow stairs winding between converted rooms in the old building; each space has less than a dozen machines each manned by an operator.  We saw a machine that had been working since the 1940s, a twisted mass of steam-punk pipes, levers, cranks and dials that was now used for custom jobs (the packets in the machine on that day were for a 50th wedding anniversary).

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Across the way, inside the Navy Yard, Cumberland owns two more buildings were it processes its other products, including the Sugar in the Raw brand. The turbinado sugar is shipped in from all over the world: on the day I was there, enormous bags arrived from Maui and Columbia.  The sugars aren’t blended when they are packaged; every packet of Sugar in the Raw is “single origin sugar.” Each packet is a taste of Maui, or Columbia, or etc. 

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I also saw immense machines that package their newest low calorie sweeteners, Stevia in the Raw and Monk Fruit in the Raw. Over 3,000 packets whizzed by, the enormous robots manned by a handful of individuals. I asked what the advantage the smaller, human powered machines had over the goliath automated packers–was it more economical for a smaller job?  The answer was no; these employees had been working for Cumberland for 30 or 40 years, and Cumberland refused to downsize their jobs.  They could replace most of their workforce with machines, but don’t out of a sense of responsibility to the community.

While anyone can appreciate Cumberland’s loyalty to its workers, it also made me feel a little funny.  I thought of the twisted mechanics of the 1940s packing machine I had seen, an antique in a factory where super robots process over 3,000 bags a minute. The people here were also antiques: held on to out of devotion and nostalgia rather than efficiency. What does it feel like to work a job where you know you’re not needed?

It made we wonder if there wasn’t a different solution: not to keep these out of date manufacturing jobs in place, but to use that same money to provide the people of the neighborhood with training and education that allows them access to jobs that better use their bodies, minds, and spirits.

But those are just my thoughts as an outside observer.  A huge part of Navy Yard’s goals for the future is to continue to provide employment for the people who live in the neighborhood now, in the face of a rapidly changing city.

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