Oil-gotten gains: Thieves target restaurant fry grease
JANESVILLE—Thieves recently parked a truck in the back of the Janesville Hooters restaurant, inserted a hose in a tank and pumped out 1,000 to 1,400 pounds of used cooking oil.
The theft was just a drop in the bucket of grease thefts in Wisconsin recently.
“In the last couple of months, we've seen an increase in southern and central Wisconsin, from perhaps a few reports on a monthly basis to as many two dozen a week,” said Bill Molander, general manager of Sanimax of Wisconsin.
The total could be more, as thefts often aren't noticed, Molander said.
Sanimax hauls and refines grease from thousands of restaurants with deep fryers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and parts of Iowa and Illinois.
The increase in thefts started in Minnesota about six months ago, and thefts recently spiked in Wisconsin, Molander said.
Molander said some indications are that thefts are organized, and he's surprised at the recent increase because the value of the grease declined recently.
But there's money in that grease.
Molander wouldn't quote prices, but he said they vary with costs in the animal feed and fuel markets. Fuel prices have dropped with the decline of crude oil prices this year.
Sanimax told Janesville police that it paid only 2.5 cents a pound when it last collected at Hooters, in August.
Restaurants with outdoor storage use either 2,000-pound tanks or barrels that can hold 400 pounds, Molander said.
The grease is used in animal feed and for fuel in diesel vehicles, often referred to as biofuel.
Theft is estimated to cost the industry about $25 million a year in North America, Molander said.
Molander said he knows of recent arrests for grease thefts in Minnesota but not in Wisconsin. He suspects thieves use trucks containing 300-gallon “totes,” which he described as plastic containers inside metal cages.
Tanks of used fryer oil often are kept behind restaurants. They are locked and/or have anti-theft lids, but thieves have found ways to break in, Molander said.
“They just pump, and within a couple minutes, they close the door, and they're off to the next one,” he said.
Sanimax uses large trucks to lift the containers, much like commercial trash haulers.
Molander said restaurants sometimes don't notice the thefts; they just think Sanimax has hauled the grease away. He said catching the thieves requires restaurants to be vigilant and report suspicious people to police.
Both thieves and the Sanimax trucks usually come at night.
“This is the back of the house, outside the back door, so they don't really look all the time,” Molander said.
Some states fine anyone who buys stolen grease, according to an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, but Wisconsin has nothing on the books, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.
In a few cases, grease thieves have faced federal charges for transporting their ill-gotten, gooey booty over state lines.
In Janesville, police received a report Sept. 5 of an attempt to steal grease from a Hardee's restaurant with a white Ford pickup truck.
The restaurant manager questioned two men who were preparing to pump the grease tank. The men said they were legitimate, but they could not prove they worked for Sanimax, according to a police report.
Hardee's also reported a grease theft Sept. 17, and Hacienda Real reported a grease theft, but the report does not say when that happened.
The Hooters theft occurred sometime between Aug. 10 and Sept. 10, when the Sanimax truck arrived to find the tank empty.
The Hooters manager told police Hooters usually receives a credit of $150 to $300 each time the tank is emptied.
“Sanimax uses large semis that are clearly marked 'Sanimax,'” the report states. “Their employees also wear dark blue Sanimax uniforms with 'Sanimax' on them, and their name clearly printed on the front of their shirt. …
“Sanimax said it is possible someone is siphoning the grease from local businesses and either dumping the used cooking grease in their own tanks to be collected by a different company or could possibly be reusing the oil for other purposes,” the report states.
The police officer writing the report on the Hooters theft suggested the restaurant secure the area around the grease tank and wrote: “Officers will attempt to make extra checks in the area when time permits.”