Stepping in to preserve their father's cherry business after a family tragedy

By Cara Eisenpress
Crains New York

When sisters Dominique Mondella and Dana Mondella Bentz, owners of Dell’s Maraschino Cherries, walk into their bustling, state of the art factory in Brooklyn, it hardly seems haunted by tragedy.

But dark memories still linger at the Red Hook facility. Their father, Arthur Mondella, last year committed suicide there during an industrial pollution investigation that exposed a hidden marijuana-growing operation in the factory basement. Now, his daughters—who were wholly unaware of their father’s illicit enterprise—are determined to preserve the family’s 68-year old business.

Dell’s comeback began just two days after the tragedy, when the factory’s 25 employees resumed marinating and bottling cherries at a pace of 200,000 pounds a week. Dominique, 30, now vice president of sales and marketing, had been working for her father for a decade, but Dana, 28, left her finance operations position at PwC to step in as president and CEO. Dominique’s experience helped sustain operations during the chaos, which helped prevent employees—some of whom she had hired—from leaving, she said. Dana’s business chops were essential to keeping revenues on track, and she now projects sales of $15 million to $18 million this year, not far below the $20 million in annual revenue Arthur shared with Crain’s a month before his death.

But an even bigger boost came from Arthur’s commitment five years earlier to a $7 million equipment upgrade to automate the process for receiving, marinating and bottling the cherries. “My father used to tell me, ‘Dana, by the time you set foot in this place it’ll run itself,’” Dana said. “And it really does—24 hours a day, seven days a week, we’re processing.”

But even as production continued, Dell’s ownership structure was in total disarray. Arthur died without leaving a will. “There was no named executor and no temporary fiduciary was appointed,” said Richard Luthmann, the sisters’ attorney. “There was real prospect for an estate battle.” With no one empowered to pay its debts, Dell’s nearly defaulted on a Citizens Bank loan, until a court authorized the negotiation of new terms. Dana was eventually named the executor. She and her sister own the majority of the company, the rest belongs to their aunt and younger half-sister.

Like the workers, many long-time customers, including Darden Restaurants, owner of Olive Garden, TGI Fridays, Steak ’n Shake, and Chick-fil-A, remained loyal to Dell’s, but Dominique has spent much of the past year acquiring new business.

They are also looking to expand, and have hired Source One Marketing, a Dallas-based sales group, to help them place consumer-size bottles on supermarket shelves.

Another goal is crafting an all-
natural cherry made without high-fructose corn syrup and artificial dyes. It is in the research and development stage now, and they hope to market it within the next two years. Dell’s also recently applied for certification as a woman-owned business, a potential advantage when dealing with customers committed to diversifying their suppliers.

The sisters say they make a great team, and their synergy is on open display. “With her 10 years at the factory and my corporate experience ...,” Dana began, “we complement each other,” Dominique said in unison with her sister.

A version of this article appears in the October 24, 2016, print issue of Crain's New York Business.