Thieves have been stealing the used cooking oil from both national chains and family-owned restaurants across Long Island. NewsdayTV's Drew Scott talks to the owner of one of those restaurants, located in Hampton Bays. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Every day, it takes at least 35 pounds of cooking oil — a canola and olive-oil blend — for the La Parma II restaurant in Huntington to cook fried calamari, shrimp, zucchini, pan-seared food and other Italian delicacies.

And every day, workers empty the used cooking oil into a container out back. But the dirty oil isn't just waste. A hauler authorized by La Parma II pays the restaurant about $1,000 to $1,200 per month, based on volume and market rate, to suck out and cart away the oil, which is converted into biofuel, said general manager Vincent Castelli.

But with a rash of used-cooking oil thefts on Long Island and beyond, it hasn’t always been working out that way for La Parma II and countless other eateries.

Thieves have been stealing used cooking oil both from national chains and family-owned restaurants. Some masquerade as contracted haulers. Some are former employees of those haulers. Some wear phony uniforms and carry forged pickup lists. Whatever the scheme, the stolen oil is later sold, at discounted rates, for recycling on the black market, essentially stealing the oil proceeds from the eatery. Left behind at the crime scene can be damage to the eatery's locked oil container and a greasy mess for the staff to clean up. 

Over the past few weeks, several men have been arrested on larceny charges, accused of driving around the Island siphoning oil from eateries such as Mint Restaurant & Lounge in Garden City, The Cheesecake Factory in Westbury, Benihana in Westbury, and Chick-fil-A locations in Westbury and Huntington Station. The criminal cases are pending; the accused thieves couldn't be reached for comment.

So far this year, there have been more than 100 incidents of cooking oil theft on the Island, the Nassau and Suffolk police departments told Newsday earlier this month.

Patrick McCall, president of McCall Risk Group Inc., a private investigation and security firm based in Southampton and Manhattan, says he has been hired by seven haulers on Long Island to look into thousands of cooking oil thefts since 2011.

“Their locks are cut, or the boxes are broken into, and the oil’s missing, and these companies are going to these locations and picking up zero for weeks and months, and saying, ‘Hey, something’s going on; we’re picking up zero oil,’ ” he said.

McCall and his staff do stakeouts. They also install motion-activated cameras that alert him and his staff via iPads when there is activity at an eatery. Between Suffolk and Nassau, he said, his firm has 73 such cameras, with the goal of 100 soon.

“We put ’em up in the hot-spot areas. So at 2 o’clock in the morning, when one of these thieves pull in — sends an immediate alert, the video pops up, and then we coordinate with whoever we have on the road, immediately put a call into our contact in the police department,” McCall said.

And if no one is around to get the alert, or no one is able to respond, the video still captures what might be a thief’s license plate and sometimes a face; sometimes it's a known oil thief.

Neither the Nassau nor Suffolk police departments answered questions for this story. But in a statement, Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun, a Nassau police spokesman, tallied at least eight cooking-oil theft arrests so far this year, as many as the previous two years combined.

McCall said thieves are seen on the cameras, “ 'ughhh!’ struggling, trying to pry the box up, and that’s when they’ll insert their pry bar, crow bar,” or a drill and cut through, and then squeezing their hose in to siphon out the oil.

To cart away the valuable liquid, thieves will buy a van on Craigslist or at auction for $2,000 or $3,000, a trash pump at Home Depot for $250 or $350, and some totes from a tractor supplier that each holds 250 or 300 gallons. The vans may have two or three totes in the back.

“For maybe three, four, five thousand dollars, they have this somewhat of an elaborate system that allows them to go out and steal,” McCall said.

Thieves sometimes carry false paperwork purporting to be issued by legitimate haulers or even wear phony uniforms, including at least one made via the online marketplace Etsy, he said.

Used cooking oil can yield big bucks.

One of the men arrested in Nassau had receipts in his vehicle showing he got $28,352 over six days for the fuel, McCall said. The man's truck could hold 3,000 gallons. 

 

Lately, McCall said he or his team have followed thieves to buyers in New Jersey that don’t bother asking questions about the oil's provenance. Such a buyer might pay $1.50 or $1.70 a gallon, based on the current market rate.

A legitimate hauler, which typically doubles as a processor, might pay a restaurant about a dollar per gallon — while also providing pickup and related services — and sell the recycled product for about $4.24, he said.

Black market or legitimate, recycled cooking oil isn’t just profitable; it’s environmentally friendly.

Used cooking oil is processed and recycled and then can be used for some diesel engine automobiles, according to Buz Barstow, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s department of biological and environmental engineering. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in 2017: “Biodiesel is an alternative fuel made from virgin vegetable oil or used vegetable oil. Even animal fats like beef tallow and fish oil can be used to make biodiesel fuel.” 

Used cooking oil can also be filtered and resold to restaurants.

Annually, up to $75 million worth of used cooking oil is stolen, to be converted to biodiesel on the black market, according to a National Renderers Association estimate from 2019.

At La Parma II, Castelli said, the problem has gotten worse whenever gas prices go up. It was bad 15 or 20 years ago, and again in the last three years.

He recalled how earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant had taken down its outdoor dining tents and left them in a container, which happened to be about 15 feet from the used-oil receptacle, to be professionally cleaned. Then he got a call the next morning, from the company hired to do the job, complaining there was grease all over the place.

Surveillance footage showed a crook botching an attempted theft — by spilling oil apparently from previous thefts before La Parma II’s oil could be sucked out.

“Something happened with their pump on their truck. So instead of sucking it out, they spilled all the grease all over our parking lot, the tents, all the equipment, everything that we have,” he said.

The loss: $26,000, he said.

Other times, he said, the thieves have damaged the receptacle while trying to wedge their sucking hose inside.

Romeo Auer, who owns the Barona Bay restaurant in Hampton Bays — which uses 300 pounds of cooking oil weekly to make French fries, chicken wings, fried cod, potato chips for the bar happy hour, and more — bought the restaurant in May. By summer, he had experienced the first of what would become several-times-a-month thefts, which he noticed when the first check from the hauler was smaller than expected.

“I say, ‘How can this be?’ ” Auer said, noting that checks that should be $200 or $300 per week were $40 sometimes.

Although many of the thieves work at night or when the restaurant is buzzing with business, some swing by during the day. One time, he caught a crook red-handed.

“They know even the schedules from the legit guys, so they would come a day earlier than the legit guys, to make sure that they have the most,” Auer said.

When confronted, the thief said, " 'You’re on my list,' " Auer recalled.

Pressed further, the thief claimed he didn’t speak English and drove away. 

Every day, it takes at least 35 pounds of cooking oil — a canola and olive-oil blend — for the La Parma II restaurant in Huntington to cook fried calamari, shrimp, zucchini, pan-seared food and other Italian delicacies.

And every day, workers empty the used cooking oil into a container out back. But the dirty oil isn't just waste. A hauler authorized by La Parma II pays the restaurant about $1,000 to $1,200 per month, based on volume and market rate, to suck out and cart away the oil, which is converted into biofuel, said general manager Vincent Castelli.

But with a rash of used-cooking oil thefts on Long Island and beyond, it hasn’t always been working out that way for La Parma II and countless other eateries.

Thieves have been stealing used cooking oil both from national chains and family-owned restaurants. Some masquerade as contracted haulers. Some are former employees of those haulers. Some wear phony uniforms and carry forged pickup lists. Whatever the scheme, the stolen oil is later sold, at discounted rates, for recycling on the black market, essentially stealing the oil proceeds from the eatery. Left behind at the crime scene can be damage to the eatery's locked oil container and a greasy mess for the staff to clean up. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Restaurants contract with haulers that pay to come suck out used dirty cooking oil from containers, cart the oil off and recycle it — to become biofuel usable in some diesel engine automobile engines.
  • Thieves are stealing the oil from eateries and selling it for recycling on the black market.
  • Anyone can buy a trash pump at a Home Depot store for $250 or $350 and some totes from a tractor supplier that each holds 250 or 300 gallons, a private investigator said.

Over the past few weeks, several men have been arrested on larceny charges, accused of driving around the Island siphoning oil from eateries such as Mint Restaurant & Lounge in Garden City, The Cheesecake Factory in Westbury, Benihana in Westbury, and Chick-fil-A locations in Westbury and Huntington Station. The criminal cases are pending; the accused thieves couldn't be reached for comment.

LI police: 100-plus incident this year

So far this year, there have been more than 100 incidents of cooking oil theft on the Island, the Nassau and Suffolk police departments told Newsday earlier this month.

Patrick McCall, president of McCall Risk Group Inc., a private investigation and security firm based in Southampton and Manhattan, says he has been hired by seven haulers on Long Island to look into thousands of cooking oil thefts since 2011.

“Their locks are cut, or the boxes are broken into, and the oil’s missing, and these companies are going to these locations and picking up zero for weeks and months, and saying, ‘Hey, something’s going on; we’re picking up zero oil,’ ” he said.

Patrick McCall, president and CEO of McCall Risk Group, installs...

Patrick McCall, president and CEO of McCall Risk Group, installs a security camera focused on the oil container outside Barona Bay in Hampton Bays. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

McCall and his staff do stakeouts. They also install motion-activated cameras that alert him and his staff via iPads when there is activity at an eatery. Between Suffolk and Nassau, he said, his firm has 73 such cameras, with the goal of 100 soon.

“We put ’em up in the hot-spot areas. So at 2 o’clock in the morning, when one of these thieves pull in — sends an immediate alert, the video pops up, and then we coordinate with whoever we have on the road, immediately put a call into our contact in the police department,” McCall said.

And if no one is around to get the alert, or no one is able to respond, the video still captures what might be a thief’s license plate and sometimes a face; sometimes it's a known oil thief.

Neither the Nassau nor Suffolk police departments answered questions for this story. But in a statement, Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun, a Nassau police spokesman, tallied at least eight cooking-oil theft arrests so far this year, as many as the previous two years combined.

McCall said thieves are seen on the cameras, “ 'ughhh!’ struggling, trying to pry the box up, and that’s when they’ll insert their pry bar, crow bar,” or a drill and cut through, and then squeezing their hose in to siphon out the oil.

To cart away the valuable liquid, thieves will buy a van on Craigslist or at auction for $2,000 or $3,000, a trash pump at Home Depot for $250 or $350, and some totes from a tractor supplier that each holds 250 or 300 gallons. The vans may have two or three totes in the back.

“For maybe three, four, five thousand dollars, they have this somewhat of an elaborate system that allows them to go out and steal,” McCall said.

Thieves sometimes carry false paperwork purporting to be issued by legitimate haulers or even wear phony uniforms, including at least one made via the online marketplace Etsy, he said.

Black market oil economics: $28G

Used cooking oil can yield big bucks.

One of the men arrested in Nassau had receipts in his vehicle showing he got $28,352 over six days for the fuel, McCall said. The man's truck could hold 3,000 gallons. 

 

Lately, McCall said he or his team have followed thieves to buyers in New Jersey that don’t bother asking questions about the oil's provenance. Such a buyer might pay $1.50 or $1.70 a gallon, based on the current market rate.

A legitimate hauler, which typically doubles as a processor, might pay a restaurant about a dollar per gallon — while also providing pickup and related services — and sell the recycled product for about $4.24, he said.

Potato chips fry in oil at Barona Bay in Hampton Bays.

Potato chips fry in oil at Barona Bay in Hampton Bays. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Black market or legitimate, recycled cooking oil isn’t just profitable; it’s environmentally friendly.

Used cooking oil is processed and recycled and then can be used for some diesel engine automobiles, according to Buz Barstow, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s department of biological and environmental engineering. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in 2017: “Biodiesel is an alternative fuel made from virgin vegetable oil or used vegetable oil. Even animal fats like beef tallow and fish oil can be used to make biodiesel fuel.” 

Used cooking oil can also be filtered and resold to restaurants.

Annually, up to $75 million worth of used cooking oil is stolen, to be converted to biodiesel on the black market, according to a National Renderers Association estimate from 2019.

At La Parma II, Castelli said, the problem has gotten worse whenever gas prices go up. It was bad 15 or 20 years ago, and again in the last three years.

He recalled how earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant had taken down its outdoor dining tents and left them in a container, which happened to be about 15 feet from the used-oil receptacle, to be professionally cleaned. Then he got a call the next morning, from the company hired to do the job, complaining there was grease all over the place.

Surveillance footage showed a crook botching an attempted theft — by spilling oil apparently from previous thefts before La Parma II’s oil could be sucked out.

“Something happened with their pump on their truck. So instead of sucking it out, they spilled all the grease all over our parking lot, the tents, all the equipment, everything that we have,” he said.

The loss: $26,000, he said.

Other times, he said, the thieves have damaged the receptacle while trying to wedge their sucking hose inside.

$300 weekly checks down to $40

Romeo Auer, who owns the Barona Bay restaurant in Hampton Bays — which uses 300 pounds of cooking oil weekly to make French fries, chicken wings, fried cod, potato chips for the bar happy hour, and more — bought the restaurant in May. By summer, he had experienced the first of what would become several-times-a-month thefts, which he noticed when the first check from the hauler was smaller than expected.

Romeo Auer, owner of Barona Bay restaurant and bar in...

Romeo Auer, owner of Barona Bay restaurant and bar in Hampton Bays, shows the container behind his restaurant where thieves have stolen his used cooking oil. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

“I say, ‘How can this be?’ ” Auer said, noting that checks that should be $200 or $300 per week were $40 sometimes.

Although many of the thieves work at night or when the restaurant is buzzing with business, some swing by during the day. One time, he caught a crook red-handed.

“They know even the schedules from the legit guys, so they would come a day earlier than the legit guys, to make sure that they have the most,” Auer said.

When confronted, the thief said, " 'You’re on my list,' " Auer recalled.

Pressed further, the thief claimed he didn’t speak English and drove away. 

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