“That would be about the last thing I’d want from here is their used grease,” said Bobby Hubble, a construction worker who has been stopping at this cramped Damascus restaurant for decades and is partial to the juicy two-piece chicken plate, with coleslaw, fries and a dinner roll.
But for iron-stomached criminals, the greasy dregs translate to easy cash. Demand is high for recycled oil. Once treated, “yellow grease,” which can net $3 per gallon, is used to fuel biodiesel fleets and as a key ingredient for feeding poultry in Delmarva and pigs in China.
Fairfax County had eight oil-theft reports in an eight-day stretch this month. In recent weeks, JW and Friends, a Springfield pub, was hit. So was Hunan Chinese Gourmet at the Fair Oaks Mall. “It seems like free money for the people going around doing it,” said Lisa Bromley, a Montgomery County police officer who has tracked dozens of reports since February.
One industry group, the National Renderers Association, estimates that 190 million pounds of used cooking oil — about 25 million gallons — is stolen each year. For comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled about 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
Valley Proteins, the Winchester, Va.-based recycler that has been carting away Red Rooster’s used oil for years, buys about 5,000 padlocks every three months to lock down oil dumpsters, according to James Katsias, the company’s assistant director of procurement.
“We’ve lost that many to snips and cuts and everything else. Torches. You wouldn’t believe people actually break into the tanks with small torches as well. They cut through the grates,” Katsias said.
Others are more cunning. Someone impersonated Valley Proteins to try to steal old oil from the District’s Old Ebbitt Grill, he said.
Kevin and Pat Miller, the son-and-mother team who run the Rooster, tallied losses of several hundred dollars from a pair of thefts captured on surveillance video.
“It just makes you mad, because you work so hard to make something good,” Pat Miller said, standing alongside an iron rooster, a rooster cookie jar, a rooster clock, rooster curtains and three clay roosters resting on a Coke machine beside a pair of American flags — garage-sale tokens from loyal customers.
When Pat Miller and her husband, Pete, were asked by a local businessman to run the Rooster more than 30 years ago, they didn’t know whether they could do it. “Talk about scared. Oh, my God,” Pat said.
After losing her job as manager of a doughnut shop, Pat had been working at a nursery, watering plants. Pete had run a Chevron station, a Radio Shack and a small engine-repair shop. “Coming into something like this, it’s a little different, a different kind of grease,” Pat said.