Taking a sustainable approach to frying

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Operators pursue improved oil recycling methods, saving money and improving food products.

Not so long ago restaurant operators paid to have spent fryer oil hauled off to a dump or to a manufacturer for repurposing. And while it cost money, seeing it gone was a blessing. Holding tanks were generally a mess and attracted unwanted pests and varmints. Some corner-cutting operators even disposed of waste oil in dumpsters — an illegal but not uncommon effort to save a few bucks that caused larger messes.

How times have changed. With improved recycling methods and easy second-use conversion to biodiesel fuel, used fryer oil is now valuable to businesses that pay restaurateurs for it. Thoughts of recycling also extend to growing consumer and operator desire for sustainability, a consideration easily categorized as “the right thing to do.”

Thankfully, improved filtration and fryer maintenance techniques have connected the idea of sustainability to extending the useable life of the oil itself. When filtered regularly and heated correctly, oil lasts longer, cooks foods better and becomes less expensive in the long run. Additionally, with high-tech frying systems that filter, drain and replenish oil supplies with the push of a button, the risk of employee waste from spillage is eliminated.

Recalling the messes and risks associated with cooks changing fryer oil makes Lou Meyer moan aloud.

“What a mess that was!” says Meyer, vice president of operations for The Briad Group, a large franchisee of Wendy’s Hamburgers and TGI Fridays restaurants. “Some of the injuries I saw way back then aren’t even fit to mention in a publication. It was dangerous and messy to carry that oil outside. I’m so glad we don’t do that anymore.”

A decade ago when Meyer began testing a closed-loop fryer oil management system from Restaurant Technologies, he realized it could revolutionize his restaurant operations. The system not only made filtering easy with a push of a button, but their spent oil also was removed to a holding tank in the back of his restaurant, and fresh oil was piped back in. The system has evolved considerably in the years since, he says.

“It uses two tanks which carry 1,500 pounds of oil — one with new oil, one for waste oil,” Meyer says. “A truck comes to the outside of the restaurant, hooks up to the used oil tank, sucks it out and then hooks up to the fresh oil tank to fill it up. Nobody even has to be at the restaurant when it happens.” Using a data link, the system’s tanks automatically notify Restaurant Technologies when fresh oil needs refilling, waste oil needs trucking away or both.

Meyer says that years ago knowing whether the oil had been filtered was a complete guessing game. Now the system provides visibility and triggers an alert to let managers know whether filtration hasn’t occurred or there has been an increased amount of oil usage outside of their normal levels. Using an online portal, Meyer can even check on fryer oil quality in any of his restaurants.

“The system is online and tells me how many times a day they’re filtering, which is something I could never do on my own with all the restaurants we have,” he says. “It tells me how much oil each one is using, who’s using too much and who’s using too little.”

At The Curtis, a hotel in Denver, sustainability centers mostly on recycling, but it also extends to time savings and safety improvements in the kitchen of its restaurant, The Corner Office Restaurant & Martini Bar. Using the automated Restaurant Technologies system, the time required to manually change cooking oil dropped from 45 minutes to 15 minutes.

“Living in Colorado, sustainability and recycling are a large part of what we do,” says Eric Friedman, sous chef at The Corner Office. In addition to the sharp reduction in oil-related burns and accidents that were ended by the hands-off, closed-loop process, “Employees see the oil recycling as another benefit of the system,” he says.

Mike Keeler, a consultant on restaurant safety strategy, says employees who aren’t injured on the job changing oil are happier employees who are more inclined to do their jobs well. He says removing and replacing oil at the push of a button is a more pleasant alternative to hauling 50-pound boxes of replacement oil to a kitchen. Ultimately, he adds, sustainability also can encompass employee retention.

“If they don’t want to do that, and nobody does, they’ll not filter it as frequently as they should or change it as often as they should, and that ruins the oil,” he says. “When you have a closed-loop system that does it for you, you also don’t have the issues of strains, sprains and slips that, historically speaking, fryers are related to. That’s just a better place to work.”