Thomas Hawn saw a pickup pull in behind the Rose & Crown restaurant and greeted the driver a few months back.
What's up? Hawn asked the man, who had grabbed a hose from his truck and stuck it in a freezer-sized bin filled with used fry oil.
The man said the owner gave him the okay to take the grease.
But Hawn, the head chef at the restaurant, knew another company had a long-term contract. So he stepped inside to call owner Al Anderson.
When Hawn returned a minute later, the bin was empty and the man was gone.
"The guy was quite brazen," said Anderson, 61.
The Rose & Crown, 12850 Walsingham Road, Largo, is not alone. Grease thefts nationwide have been on the rise. And in June, the St. Petersburg Times reported that similar incidents have occurred in St. Petersburg, Tampa, Orlando and Miami.
"We lose oil daily," said Frank DiBenedetto, who owns FCS Inc., a plumbing and pumping company near Largo that picks up oil at several hundred Central Florida restaurants. "You can't babysit all of the containers."
And two weeks ago, FCS had to replace a 300-gallon grease barrel at a Largo recycling center with a tamper proof container because someone had pilfered used grease there.
At least twice, FCS workers had noticed about 2 feet of cooking oil in the Largo recycling drum, DiBenedetto said. But when they went back to retrieve the grease, it was gone, he said.
DiBenedetto says he thinks he knows why folks are taking the grease.
"Local people are converting that oil into fuel for themselves," he said.
People can buy kits online that can convert diesel engines to run on filtered fryer oil. There are also filtering methods available online, DiBenedetto said, but they're not necessarily efficient.
Peggy Mathews, corporate spokeswoman for biodiesel producer Agri-Source Fuels, said there's a key challenge for people who try to make biodiesel in their garage: producing a quality product that won't harm engines.
"I can guarantee it will not be up to standards," said Mathews, whose company makes biodiesel from chicken fat.
Restaurants routinely store used grease in containers and have contracts with companies that pick it up.
Collection companies use the grease in a variety of ways. They may convert it into biodiesel fuel or process it into glazes for animal feed or byproducts in paint or plastics.
Years ago, people used to have to pay to have grease picked up, Anderson said. Now, Griffin Industries, which collects his oil, pays him about $100 a month.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 445-4155.