FORT WORTH, Texas — In darkened alleyways, a slimy cat-and-mouse game is playing out across America.
Men in trucks are fighting over a dirty and sometimes foul-smelling substance that restaurants once paid to get hauled off. Now it can be worth thousands per truckload. Liquid gold, some in the trade call it.
It’s grease — used kitchen cooking oil from deep fryers at KFC and the seasoned saucepans of the fanciest French restaurant.
The increasingly consolidated industry, ranging from mom and pop operations to publicly traded giants, is marked by cutthroat competition to claim restaurant accounts. And all of them have to grab their grease before a ragtag swarm of thieves gets there first.
“This one is pretty clean,” Clay Carrillo-Miranda of Haltom City’s Best Grease Service said on his second-to-last stop of the day when he pumped out thick gunk from a container behind the J&J Oyster Bar in Fort Worth. “Some stink so bad you want to throw up. When it’s 105 degrees, this job isn’t a lot of fun, so that’s when I go out at night.”
And after sundown is when the thieves usually strike — and fast.
“You can pull in and drive off in five minutes. It can be $500 a night, $2,500 a week,” said Carrillo-Miranda, 37, a beefy man in a black T-shirt and jean shorts. “Even if your truck gets impounded, that’s $500. You’re still ahead $2,000 for the week.”
A 15-year veteran of the oil-recycling business, he spends several nights a month on stakeouts behind restaurants that contract with his employer. He has lost count of the locks he’s replaced because of thieves with bolt cutters. His boss, Brian Smith, says a Burleson, Texas, man was caught using the firefighters’ Jaws of Life to break into tanks.
Licensed collectors have used surveillance cameras, extra-heavy metal lids and off-duty cops to protect their routes while lobbying for better local enforcement and stronger state laws. In a sign of how aggressive the grease war has become, a dozen production companies are looking into creating reality TV episodes.
Chris Griffin, deputy general counsel for Irving-based Darling International and its Griffin Industries unit, a national recycler, conservatively estimates that 20 percent of its used kitchen grease is stolen each year.
The thefts are fueled in part by growing demand for biodiesel. Darling and Valero opened the country’s largest biodiesel plant last year in Norco, La., with a daily capacity of 142 million gallons. Before, the grease was mainly used for lubricants, soap and animal feed.
When soybean prices spiked because of the drought in 2012, demand for used cooking grease for biofuel production rose, according to a 2013 industry study by IBIS World. The research firm estimated that sales last year reached $1.3 billion, and it predicted annual growth of 1.7 percent through 2018.