MARYVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — When you hear the word “theft,” you may not think about cooking oil. Several businesses and restaurants in East Tennessee have been recently targeted by “grease thieves.”

An unlikely item continues to be stolen from area restaurants and it’s something used every day — cooking oil. We’re told between 20-to-30 restaurants in the Maryville and Knoxville areas have been hit just in the last few months.

So, why is this seemingly mundane item being taken?

“It’s the fuel industry. This is used to make biodiesel and it’s starting to become a big industry, it’s growing. Five years ago I had no clue about it until I started working here,” Cal McClintic with Green Energy Biofuel said. “Ever since then it’s blown up tremendously with all the efforts to make fuel greener because biodiesel burns cleaner than regular diesel and cooking oil is the main ingredient.”

According to a report from the Maryville Police Department, three restaurants have been hit recently: Aubrey’s, The Walnut Kitchen and Jaboni’s. When this oil gets stolen, the restaurants lose out.

“We pay the restaurants for their oil. If there is someone else taking it that’s not us, we can’t pay them for it,” McClintic said.

Not only are the restaurants losing money, Green Energy Biofuel has to repair all of the bins that have been broken into.

“A few weeks ago, one of these thieves went and attacked one of our restaurants and in the process damaged grease traps causing about $12,000 worth of damages,” McClintic said.

These thefts could potentially have more long-term consequences.

“It affects the companies’ income and things like that. It affects raises, better equipment, it’s really a trickle-down effect,” said Green Energy Biofuel recycling consultant Michael Trojan.

“It could even possibly harm relationships with the restaurants. If we are the ones servicing them and someone else is coming in and messing everything up that just makes us look bad,” according to McClintic.

All of these incidents have occurred between midnight and 5 a.m. and those suspects – the so-called “grease thieves” – are still on the loose.