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.

Last year, Green Grease Monkey moved its operations from Jamaica Plain to a quiet residential street in Brighton. On a sunny afternoon this spring, Keaney lopes around the driveway pushing rows of grease jugs into slightly more organized rows. He’s made one into a bird feeder that hangs above a blue bin that, I will discover, serves as the collection container for the composting toilet he set up in his basement. He still converts cars, but getting grease has become a real struggle. “I’ve had to hustle, scrounge, steal—for lack of a better term,” he says. “The golden era is coming to an end.” Once happy to give fuel away, he recently began charging $1.75 a gallon.

Even the Martucci family has been changing to adapt to the shifting market. Over the past few months, they’ve finally begun describing themselves to clients as recyclers, something they never had to do in the past. “It’s like putting on your shoes. We don’t know how to explain it, because we’ve just been doing it for so long,” says Anthony Martucci’s son, Gus. As part of their new marketing effort, the family recently took out an ad in a trade magazine called Green Business Quarterly.

Up in New Hampshire, SmartFuel has passed its six-month birthday and has yet to turn a profit, despite its client roster of 300-plus restaurants. On July 1, in order to get his hands on more grease, Hunt Stehli began offering 35 cents for every gallon of it, nearly double what he had accounted for in his original business plan. He heard Baker jumped to 40 cents, but he refuses to go any higher. “They have extremely deep pockets, and I am pretty adamantly opposed to an endless bidding war,” he says.

Not long ago, Stehli got a phone call from Patrick Maloney of Bio-Diesel Boston, who has been working on a few plans of his own. Maloney wondered if the two could enter into some kind of agreement that would keep them from competing for each other’s customers. Maybe there’s a way to pull together, he said, to put an end to the bidding war.

Viewed one way, what Maloney’s proposing sounds something like a cartel, the kind of system he and others accuse the rendering companies of profiting from for years. Maloney wouldn’t use that word, though. If his plan comes to fruition, he thinks he’ll call the new arrangement a co-op.