Restaurants in Woodstock and surrounding communities have fallen victim to the theft of used cooking oil, robbing them of a revenue source and reducing the supply for converting to fuel. Buffalo Biodiesel, a Tonawanda-based firm, alerted media outlets and law enforcement agencies to the crimes.
“The theft of used cooking oil not only harms Buffalo Biodiesel Inc. for tens of millions of dollars each year — it also directly harms the individual restaurant owners who sell the oil to us, i.e., restaurant owners and constituents in your jurisdiction,” the company said in a September 17 communication.
In the following weeks, more than 20 restaurants in the Kingston and Town of Ulster area fell victim to similar thefts. This summer, thieves hit 12 restaurants in Saugerties and in recent weeks, several in New Paltz had oil taken 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 town of Esopus restaurant in response to reports of a suspicious vehicle. They were charged with petit larceny, a misdemeanor.
Town of Ulster, New Paltz, Saugerties and Woodstock police have made arrests and are also investigating cooking oil thefts. New Paltz police are looking into any connection between the cooking oil theft suspects from Yonkers and oil pilfered from other area restaurants. State police confirmed they are aware of similar incidents.
The most recent thefts occurred 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 had oil taken from their containers, according to Karina Baldwin-Koch, marketing and theft manager for Buffalo Biodiesel.
The company provides a padlocked container for the restaurants to store their used cooking oil, collects it and pays them for it. The containers are kept outside the restaurants and each has a lid with a screen to separate solids and the oil is poured into it. “And then we turn around, process it, refine it, and then send it off to become biofuel,” Baldwin-Koch said. “With the cost of gas rising up, this is a better way to go for all vehicles essentially.”
But thieves, in the dead of the night, have been breaking the padlock, removing the lid and screen and pumping out the oil. The thefts have become such a big concern that the company has an entire department devoted to dealing with it and reporting incidents to law enforcement.
“We had roughly 2000 thefts just this year along occurring from all our vendors. We have over 18,000 suppliers at this point.”
As drivers are on their pickup routes, they will notify the companies of any theft, as will restaurant owners and employees.
“There’s a big market for it because it can be sold at a profit,” Baldwin-Koch said. “They will go around in the dead of night in a van or a U-Haul and just suck it out and steal it.”
In the early days, restaurants would happily give their used oil to tinkerers 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 get 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, says the global market was $5.65 billion in 2021.
At the end of 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that the price of used oil had risen 80% in that year, to 66 cents a pound. Another report says that waste vegetable oil weighs about 7.5 pounds per gallon…that math tells us that it’s marketplace worth is nearly $5 per gallon…more than the price of gasoline.
Not all thieves are human
Sometimes, the thieves are of the large and furry variety.
“[One] container was so dented, we were like, did they ram it with a truck to break everything,” Baldwin-Koch said. It turned out to be a very determined bear.
The owner of that restaurant put the container on a concrete pad and chained it down.
If it’s a high-volume restaurant, the owner will sometimes put up a corral to keep the container safe. “Sometimes they build things like that if it’s reoccurring. They’re losing thousands of dollars as well,” Baldwin-Koch said.
She noted law enforcement response is mixed and usually depends on the size of the community. “Usually the smaller town ones respond a lot better. The bigger cities kind of tend to pass it off on someone else and say that it’s not in their jurisdiction,” Baldwin-Koch said. “Some days I’m dealing with angry law enforcement some days I’m dealing with really nice, polite people but it definitely comes in waves.”
To help catch the thieves, Buffalo Biodiesel will provide surveillance equipment.
“If owners do not have cameras on premises or local cameras around it, we do provide camera installation free of charge to customers,” she said.