Thieves steal used cooking oil from local restaurants

Restaurants in Woodstock and surrounding communities have been victims of the theft of used cooking oil, depriving them of a source of income and reducing the supply for conversion to fuel. Buffalo Biodiesel, a Tonawanda-based company, alerted the media and law enforcement to the crimes.

“The theft of used cooking oil not only harms Buffalo Biodiesel Inc. tens of millions of dollars each year – it also directly harms the individual restaurant owners who sell the oil to us, i.e. the restaurant owners and voters in your jurisdiction,” the company said in a September 17 communication.

Over the next few weeks, more than 20 restaurants in the Kingston area and the city of Ulster fell victim to similar thefts. Thieves hit 12 restaurants in Saugerties this summer, and in recent weeks several in New Paltz have had oil removed from their containers.

Ulster County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Elmin Sanchez-Trochez, 33, and Paola Torres-Jimenez, 37, both of Yonkers, on September 21 for stealing cooking oil from a restaurant in the town of Esopus in response to reports of a suspicious vehicle. They were charged with petty larceny, a misdemeanor.

Police in Ulster City, New Paltz, Saugerties and Woodstock have made arrests and are also investigating cooking oil thefts. New Paltz police are investigating any connection between the Yonkers cooking oil theft suspects and oil stolen from other restaurants in the area. State police have confirmed they are aware of similar incidents.

The most recent thefts have taken place at Woodstock Meats and Catskill Mountain Pizza. Since the beginning of the year and throughout the summer, Bearsville Center, Dixon Roadside, the former Joshua’s, Silvia, the former Shindig, Woodstock Pub and Santa Fe Woodstock have had oil removed from their containers, according to Karina Baldwin-Koch, Buffalo Biodiesel Marketing and Responsible Flight.

The company provides restaurants with a padlocked container to store their used cooking oil, collects it and pays for it. Containers are kept outside restaurants and each has a lid with a screen to separate solids and oil is poured into them. “And then we turn it around, process it, refine it, and then send it off to become biofuel,” Baldwin-Koch said. “With the rising cost of gas, this is a better way to go for basically all vehicles.”

But the thieves, in the middle of the night, broke the padlock, removed the lid and the sieve and pumped out the oil. Thefts have become such a concern that the company has an entire department dedicated to handling them and reporting incidents to law enforcement.

“We’ve had around 2,000 flights this year across all of our suppliers. We have over 18,000 suppliers at this point.

As drivers are on their pick-up routes, they will notify businesses of any thefts, as will restaurant owners and employees.

“There’s a big market for it because it can be sold for a profit,” Baldwin-Koch said. “They’ll be driving around in the middle of the night in a van or a U-Haul and sucking it up and stealing it.”

At first, restaurants would gladly donate their used oil to DIYers who had converted old diesel vehicles to run on it, but big companies soon saw the opportunity and created a market for it.

Now restaurants are paid by the gallon.

How lucrative is it? A research study, “Used Cooking Oil Market: Global Industry Trends, Share, Size, Growth, Opportunity and Forecast 2022-2027” by IMARC Group, reports the global market was 5.65 billion dollars in 2021.

At the end of 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that the price of used oil had risen 80% that year, to 66 cents per pound. Another report says used vegetable oil weighs about 7.5 pounds per gallon…this calculation tells us its market value is nearly $5 per gallon…more than the price of gasoline.

Not all thieves are human

Sometimes the thieves are tall and furry.

“[One] the container was so dented, we were like, did they ram it with a truck to smash it all up,” Baldwin-Koch said. He turned out to be a very determined bear.

The owner of this restaurant placed the container on a concrete slab and chained it.

If it is a high-volume restaurant, the owner will sometimes set up a corral to keep the container secure. “Sometimes they build things like that if it happens again. They are also losing thousands of dollars,” Baldwin-Koch said.

She noted that the response from law enforcement is mixed and generally depends on the size of the community. “Usually, small towns react much better. Big cities kind of have a tendency to pass it off as somebody else and say it’s not their business,” Baldwin-Koch said. “Some days I deal with angry law enforcement, other days I deal with really nice and polite people, but it definitely comes in waves.”

To help catch thieves, Buffalo Biodiesel will provide surveillance equipment.

“If owners don’t have cameras on site or local cameras around, we provide camera installation to customers for free,” she said.

Gladys T. Hensley