Some thieves steal money. Some steal jewels. But for an increasing number of thieves in Florida, grease is the word.
Yes, grease — that slick liquid that's left over after you fry a chicken or cook a burger.
"Florida has become a hotbed for grease theft," said Chris Griffin, who is in charge of legal affairs for Griffin Industries, one of the country's leading collectors of restaurant grease.
Restaurants — from the fanciest French bistro to the funkiest fast-food joint — save up their grease in big drums usually found in the back of their parking lot. Trucks from Griffin, a Kentucky-based company that operates in 21 states, and other reputable collectors come by regularly to collect it.
But lately the Griffin drivers are finding that thieves have gotten there first, draining the drums of their liquid gold.
The competition for Florida grease has become so heated that several grease collection companies are suing each other, claiming everything from theft to unfair competition. One company official from Boca Raton said he has bought $50,000 in surveillance equipment, including night-vision goggles, to try to stop all the stealing.
"I tell people every day, I'm in a war," said Pat Cassese, operations manager of Universal Grease.
How did grease get so hot? Blame it on the increase in gasoline prices.
Restaurant grease can be turned into biodiesel fuel, which produces far less air pollution than regular diesel. It has slowly gained in popularity as an alternative fuel for powering trucks, farm equipment, boats, anything with a diesel engine. Pinellas County's dump trucks burn biodiesel, as do fire trucks on Sanibel Island and military vehicles at Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle.
Griffin Industries has been handling restaurant grease for decades, filtering it to make "yellow grease," the basic ingredient for biodiesel.
In the past year, the price of yellow grease has climbed from just over $2 a gallon to nearly $3.50 a gallon in the Southeast, according to the Jacobsen, a Chicago agency that tracks renewable fuels. That's still below the cost of a gallon of gas.
Restaurants used to pay Griffin to pick up the grease. Now Griffin often pays them.
"Grease is no different from diamonds," Chris Griffin said. "They both have value, they're both a commodity. Right now it's the highest market I've ever seen."
The fact that several hundred gallons of a valuable commodity is now sitting in the back of a lot of restaurants has not escaped the notice of people interested in making a quick buck. Griffin Industries has a pair of detectives investigating thefts in Kentucky, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas and Florida, and turning their findings over to prosecutors.
"We're now dealing with four or five reports of theft a day" from across several states, Griffin said. In Florida, the thefts have occurred in St. Petersburg, Tampa, Orlando and Miami, he said. He declined to provide specifics of any cases.
Usually the thieves slip in at night and simply swipe the stuff, Griffin said. But a bolder few show up in the daytime and, if spotted, claim they're a subcontractor hired by Griffin to haul away the goods.
However, he said, "many restaurants are in tune with what's happening," and they know the real Griffin drivers wear uniforms and show up in marked trucks. Lately, Griffin has begun putting 18-inch-by-18-inch stickers with its logo on the grease drums to make it clear who owns the contents.
Some of the thieves are just dabbling in grease because it's easier to steal than, say, television sets. Some have been at it awhile. In one case, Griffin said, "a restaurant owner went out back … and witnessed the theft going on, and when he asked the guy what he was doing, the guy admitted he had been stealing grease for several years from that location."
Then there are the professionals.
Griffin Industries is currently suing Universal Grease in Orange County Circuit Court, contending its drivers swiped Griffin grease from restaurants in Orlando, Griffin said. "We have eyewitnesses who saw this competitor stealing grease," he said.
Two other South Florida grease collectors have indicated that they intend to sue Universal Grease over allegations of unfair trade practices that persuaded restaurants to switch.
Meanwhile, Cassese of Universal said his surveillance team had just caught a whole team of thieves stealing grease that was supposed to be collected by Universal, and they turned out to be employees of a competitor.
"Some of the drivers that work for other companies," he said, "are a little unscrupulous."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.