Local Restaurants Stuck in “Grease Trap”

At the height of holiday shopping season last week, a handful of restaurants in Knoxville, Tenn.’s thriving downtown Market Square district announced plans to close. Some of those are blaming the cost of a mandatory upgrade to their grease-control equipment, costs that restaurants across the country are facing.

The Knoxville Utility Board is enforcing its ruling that restaurants using automatic dishwashers can no longer plumb through that humble standby, the grease trap. They must instead install a minimum 1,000-gallon grease interceptor, essentially a tank for fats, oils, and grease (FOG, in waste-management-speak) so big it typically has to go outside or, more problematically, down below, the restaurant.

See, if your Knoxville restaurant building is old, or if it’s small, or if it lacks a basement or a couple of manholes and a baffle wall, you might have to dig out space underground for the interceptor. That can get pricey – in some cases more than $20,000 – and separate checks are not allowed. The whole tab goes to the dining establishment, no matter if they don’t own the building they operate in, so even if it doesn’t fatally choke the business, making the structural improvement can seem like shoving tens of thousands of dollars down the drain. Those who won’t budge, such as the burger-and-bourbon hotspot Stock and Barrel (proud home of an “Elvis Burger”), are stuck with the dishes – that is to say, with washing them by hand – not exactly an efficiency measure.

Right Here’s Your Problem, Ma’am
For once, the Southern penchant for deep-fried food is not to blame. Grease in the sewage system is a universal urban problem. According to the city’s 2013 State of the Sewers report, 62 percent of New York’s 15,000 sewer backups were caused by grease. The City of London famously foundered last year on a grease blockage so immense it spawned a new word, “fatberg” – and that was months from the Yuletide season, with goose fat entering the system at a relative trickle.

Knoxville’s FOG issues, then, are typical of growing cities. KUB explained to us that they are simply following the Federally mandated grease-control program set by the Environmental Protection Agency, adding in an email, “We work closely with customers to help them comply.” Knoxville restaurateurs we spoke with had no quibble with the first part. Who, after all, hates a grease backup more than the dishwashing staff? Compliance with local regulations aside, it’s in all restaurants’ best interests to keep their grease moving and adequately disposed of in up-to-date equipment since spoiled-food odors have the power to kill a business all by themselves.

The takeaway for 2015: Between grease thieves and utilities, restaurants would do well to pay closer attention to the flow of their fat.

Photo courtesy of Visit Knoxville

Elaine Evans
Elaine Evans Elaine Evans is thrilled to blog for KaTom, where her work in restaurants, bars, catering, and artisanal food has caught up at last with her career in journalism and public relations writing. Connect with Elaine Evans on Google+
  1. December 23, 2014 at 7:52 am, Anonymous said:

    There is a win-win solution for the restaurants and the city sewers used successfully in many other cities and states. They just run the automatic dishwasher "direct to drain" without going through a grease trap or interceptor. It works because the vast majority of grease comes from "pot sinks" and the "rinse stations" immediately preceding the dishwasher. Relatively little grease is left on plates going into the dishwasher. In fact, many states prohibit connecting automatic dishwashers to grease traps or interceptors instead of requiring it like Knoxville. The reason for the prohibition: The very strong detergents and extra hot water used in automatic dishwashers strip previously captured grease out of grease traps and interceptors and send it to the sewers. In other words, connecting automatic dishwashers to grease traps or interceptors sabotages them, send more grease into sewers instead of less. Knoxville Utility Board should study what progressive utilities are successfully doing elsewhere before it puts more restaurants out of business. The Board would also learn that so-called "Automatic Grease Removal Devices" (developed in the 1980s) are now being required in many smart cities because they are much more effective and less expensive than grease interceptors (developed in the 1880s).


  2. December 23, 2014 at 12:22 pm, Dennis Duffy said:

    Hurrah for you, Elaine!


  3. December 23, 2014 at 4:16 pm, Jennifer Sharp said:

    Sad that just when it starts to be built up and thriving that good ole KUB comes in and shuts it down.


  4. March 21, 2015 at 12:48 am, Grease Go Green said:

    Every 3 Months….¿¿¿¿¿