Scenes from the Grease Wars

How sky-high energy prices and green chic turned Hub restaurants' used fryer oil into a prize worth fighting dirty for.

On a cold morning in January 2006, Keaney slid into the passenger seat of a grease-powered Mercedes driven by his business partner, Dave Staunton. They headed to Roxbury, where Staunton pulled into Newmarket Square, a sprawling industrial park just off Route 93, where rows of refrigerated warehouses surround a parking lot no one has gotten around to paving. Staunton parked, and he and Keaney walked into a building marked Mutual Beef.

They were met by Anthony Martucci, a tall man with a crown of white hair and a build thick as a prize steer’s. Martucci wore a white meat-cutter’s jacket with “Big Guy” embroidered above the pocket—a moniker describing not just his size, but also his position of authority within the family’s businesses. In 1905, his grandfather started A. Martucci & Sons, which used a horse and buggy to collect the fat and meat trimmings from homes and area slaughterhouses. Eighty years later, the family took over Mutual Beef, which makes hamburger patties for restaurants, and then added a second byproducts collector, A & K Waste, in 1995. Today, Martucci’s black Hummer can often be found parked in front of the Roxbury warehouse door. Its vanity plate reads: “Bones.”

Patrick Keaney had unwittingly stumbled into a corner of this country’s $3.1 billion trade in processed fat—an industry that has always preferred to stay in the background. As meat eaters, we’re happy to see supermarket cases of chicken breasts, pork chops, and filet mignon, but we’d rather forget that, on average, 2 pounds of every chicken, 100 pounds of every pig, and 600 pounds of every cow aren’t even edible. It falls to rendering companies to collect those parts—54 billion pounds of them last year nationwide—and boil them down into fats that end up in a wide range of fertilizers, livestock feeds, and cosmetics. (“It’s not a glamorous industry,” says Thomas Cook, the head of the National Renderers Association.) But in the urban Northeast, where it’s been 25 years since most of the old slaughterhouses closed, just about the only thing left for the local renderers to collect and boil down is the fat left out behind restaurants. And now some guys calling themselves the Green Grease Monkeys were trying to take that away, too.

Martucci led Keaney and Staunton to a low-ceilinged office above Mutual Beef’s processing floor. An American flag hung on the wall, alongside stills from GoodFellas, The Sopranos, and The Godfather. Keaney noticed that someone had pasted pictures of Martucci family members over the actors’ faces. Several of those same relatives were already gathered in the office when he and Staunton sat down. The Martuccis didn’t mince words. Their problem, they explained, was that Green Grease Monkey’s offer of free pickup was threatening to put them out of business. How should the family deal with the newcomers, Anthony Martucci asked. He let the question hang in the air. (“We didn’t say, ‘We’re going to break your legs,’ or anything like that,” Martucci told me later.)

As Keaney and Staunton saw it, the family’s frustration betrayed a foggy understanding of the emerging uses for grease. Keaney explained that his own tiny operation wasn’t the real threat. The real threat would come from a wave of well-funded green entrepreneurs who were beginning to see opportunity where others had seen only garbage. “Look, man,” Keaney told them, “this isn’t the last you’re going to hear of this. This is no longer the waste disposal business—this is the energy recycling business.”