The bandit pulled his truck to the back of a Burger King in Northern California one afternoon last month armed with a hose and a tank. After rummaging around assorted restaurant rubbish, he dunked a tube into a smelly storage bin and, the police said, vacuumed out about 300 gallons of grease.
The man was caught before he could slip away. In his truck, the police found 2,500 gallons of used fryer grease, indicating that the Burger King had not been his first fast-food craving of the day.
Outside Seattle, cooking oil rustling has become such a problem that the owners of the Olympia Pizza and Pasta Restaurant in Arlington, Wash., are considering using a surveillance camera to keep watch on its 50-gallon grease barrel. Nick Damianidis, an owner, said the barrel had been hit seven or eight times since last summer by siphoners who strike in the night.
“Fryer grease has become gold,” Mr. Damianidis said. “And just over a year ago, I had to pay someone to take it away.”
Much to the surprise of Mr. Damianidis and many other people, processed fryer oil, which is called yellow grease, is actually not trash. The grease is traded on the booming commodities market. Its value has increased in recent months to historic highs, driven by the even higher prices of gas and ethanol, making it an ever more popular form of biodiesel to fuel cars and trucks.
In 2000, yellow grease was trading for 7.6 cents per pound. On Thursday, its price was about 33 cents a pound, or almost $2.50 a gallon. (That would make the 2,500-gallon haul in the Burger King case worth more than $6,000.)
Biodiesel is derived by processing vegetable oil or animal fat with alcohol. It is increasingly available around the country, but it is expensive. With the right kind of conversion kit (easily found on the Internet) anyone can turn discarded cooking oil into a usable engine fuel that can burn on its own, or as a cheap additive to regular diesel.
“The last time kids broke in here they went for the alcohol,” said Mr. Damianidis, who fries chicken wings and cheese sticks. “Obviously they’re stealing oil because it’s worth something.”
While there have been reports of thefts in multiple states, law enforcement officials do not compile national statistics and it remains unclear whether this is part of a passing trend or something more serious.
The suspects in a growing number of grease infractions fall into a range of categories, people interviewed on the matter said, as grease theft is a crime of opportunity. They include do-it-yourself environmentalists worried about their carbon footprints, warring waste management firms trying to beat each other on the sly, and petty thieves who are profiting from the oil’s rising value on the black market.
“It’s a new oddity,” said Officer Seth Hanson of the Federal Way Police Department, near Tacoma, Wash. He said thefts occur outside at least a couple of restaurants there each week. “We’re trying to get an eyeball on how well-organized it is, if at all. To date, we haven’t been very successful in finding anybody.”
Thefts have been reported in at least 20 states, said Christopher A. Griffin, whose family owns Griffin Industries, one of the largest grease collection and rendering companies in the country. The problem has gotten so bad, Mr. Griffin has hired two detectives to investigate thefts around the country.
“Theft is theft,” said Mr. Griffin, who is based in Cold Spring, Ky. “I don’t care if you’re stealing grease or if you’re stealing diamonds.”
Fryer oil from a restaurant that does a high volume of frying one kind of food — for example, a fried-chicken chain — is at a premium because of its relative purity. The large-scale producers of grease, restaurants mostly, own their old oil and in recent months have even made a small profit by selling it to collectors.
Because of the grease’s rancid odor, most restaurants usually store it out back with the trash.
“Once you put something in the trash, it’s abandoned property,” said Jon A. Jaworski, a lawyer in Houston who represents accused grease thieves. “A lot of times, it’s not theft.”
Even so, most restaurant owners and grease collectors say that grease is not free for the taking.
“There’s a new fight for the product, definitely a whole new demand sector,” said Bill Smith, a market reporter for Urner Barry’s Yellow Sheet, an industry newsletter that tracks yellow grease. “Grease theft is becoming a bigger and bigger issue.”
In the case of the Burger King theft, in Morgan Hill, Calif., the police were alerted to suspicious activity by a neighbor who runs his own grease collection and recycling business and is on the lookout for rustlers.
Driving through town, the neighbor, Mark Rosenzweig, said he spotted the suspect’s truck because “it stuck out.” He said he followed it for blocks before it pulled into the Burger King. Mr. Rosenzweig said he knew the man who holds the Burger King grease account, so he called him.
“I had to give everybody a roadside tutorial on grease theft,” Mr. Rosenzweig said of his next call — to the police. “Ten years ago we couldn’t give this stuff away. Now everybody’s fighting over it.”
The suspect in the case, a 49-year-old man who said he was from Las Vegas, has yet to enter a plea, and is due in court next in July.
A typical fast-food restaurant produces 150 to 250 pounds of grease a week. Many do not even know when a theft occurs because it usually happens overnight. Most security cameras and night watchmen are focused on cash registers, not the trash.
“Who do you go after?” said Jason Christensen, a trader of fats and oils for the AgriTrading Corporation, in Minnesota. “I sense you’ll start seeing more surveillance equipment put in to monitor these storage facilities at the restaurant. As the price goes up, you can afford to spend a little more to protect your interest.”
And there is so much interest in grease these days.
The City of San Francisco has its own grease recycling program run through the Public Utilities Commission called SFGreasecycle, which collects discarded vegetable oil from city restaurants at no charge and recycles it into biodiesel for use in the city fleet.
Healy Biodiesel, a company in Sedgwick, Kan., says it offers a top-quality fuel made from local cooking oils.
Ben Healy, the owner, has contracts to collect the raw grease from several franchises around town.
“One particular night not too long ago, 9 out of 15 were stolen,” he said of the grease bins. “That’s a majority of the oil and it was a big kick in the stomach.”
At Olympia Pizza and Pasta, Mr. Damianidis, who now sells his grease for a small monthly fee, finds the problem of stolen fryer oil quite annoying and distracting. And he wants to stop the thefts. He is leaning toward a security camera and hoping for the best.
“I cook food,” Mr. Damianidis said. “I’m not going to stay up until 2 in the morning trying to catch someone stealing a barrel of grease.”
[Via NY Times]