By M.L. Nestel
Enterprising crooks are striking oil.
The theft of used cooking grease from city restaurants has risen in recent years thanks to the demand for “yellow grease” — a valuable ingredient in biodiesel, say eatery owners and licensed oil collectors.
They suspect an organized element creating a black market while others are calling it industrial cooking oil espionage.
And now, some business owners are going after the greasy bandits by hiring private investigators and beefing up security.
Nicknamed “vultures” or “gypsies,” grease thieves are often armed with a hose, a vacuum or souped-up vacuum or lawnmower engine and drain dry massive metal drums loaded with the rancid cooking sludge.
The thieves trawl the streets in unmarked vans and swipe the oil — going for $1 a gallon on the streets– from unsuspecting restaurant workers.
The oil can be converted into yellow grease, a commodity used to make biodiesel.
The city’s Business Integrity Commission records show around 30 licensed grease haulers, who pay restaurants to collect the grease to refineries.
Haulers pay around $2 a gallon to lug the lard from the kitchens to turn it into diesel fuel, animal feed or even jet fuel.
In 2011, city haulers collected 8.3 million gallons of yellow grease from the 17,000 city restaurants.
Todd Magee, of American By-Products based in New Jersey said the thievery has peaked.
“There’s been theft before but we’ve never, ever seen anything like this before.”
Frustrated fryers say the thieves are faster than greased lighting.
“They’re so fast they stole the whole thing in 45 seconds,” said Erik Mayor, owner of Milk Burger in East Harlem. “It takes the company I hire almost five minutes to get the same oil.”
Mayor helped cops nab two men who struck on Jan. 21 for their second illicit fill-up in four days.
Ibico Rojas, 51, and his 29-year-old cohort Jesus Gonzalez were trapped by Mayor while trying to act like legit oil haulers just casually sucking the grease from his 45-gallon drum.
One of the perps begged for mercy.
“‘Please don’t do this,’” he pleaded. “‘I have a family. I can’t afford to go to jail.’”
They were charged with burglary, but with clean records, pleaded down to criminal trespassing.
Mayor calls them “pros.”
“This is a racket! They have to have a buyer. This is like a whole scheme going on.”
Brent Baker, founder of Tristate Biodiesel who recycles Milk Burger’s oil acknowledges that they weren’t the only customer to have their oil siphoned.
“We’ve seen guys show up in a uniform that looks like ours and they’ll say they’re from Tristate Biodiesel,” he said. “We eventually realized that people were posing as us.”
Baker even hired a private investigator when routine pickups returned empty.
“We were getting robbed and it was malicious and it was by a competitor.”
Another hauling operator Mordy Festinger of Green Horizons confirmed a KFC in Queens, and two kosher restaurants in Borough Park were recent victims.
He’s rigged his barrels with welded locks to prevent theft, but says they won’t stop.
“It still happens, and quite a bit of times my barrel is gone,” he said.
Months went by before kitchen staffers at the swanky KittiChai Hotel in the West Village realized their oil disappeared.
“They came really, really early so it took me a while to figure it out,” a staffer said.
“Whoever took the oil was taking off the stickers and clipping the locks.”
Joseph Randazzo, 28, of the world-famous Randazzo’s Clam Bar in Sheepshead Bay has been helpless as just this month bandits clipped the locks and emptied his 1,000-gallon barrel.
“We’ve never had anything remotely like this,” Randazzo said.
If the thieves return, Randazzo is ready.
“I would like to personally catch them myself,” he said. “ I think justice wouldn’t be served by calling the cops because they’re stealing something petty. What are they going to get a slap on the wrist?”
Too often the issue is often being treated like newspapers disappearing from sidewalks, a police source said.
“The police, they’ll do something—especially if it’s a moment of opportunity but they won’t invest resources unless it’s organized crime or loosely organized.”
BIC Commissioner and Chair Shari C. Hyman says the agency is making strides to stop the oil pirates, but acknowledges the adversary is elusive.
“These thieves operate in unmarked trucks under the cover of darkness making them difficult to find.”
Additional reporting by Georgett Roberts