The Grease Experiment

How Jimmy Buffett is helping shrimpers with a slick idea

Photo: Chris Dixon

Jimmy Buffett with the Hailey Marie gang.

Jimmy Buffett has a vision for his golden years. “My dream,” explains the musician, “is to get a big ole tanker truck, with huge holding capacity, and drive it up and down the Eastern seaboard collecting used cooking oil.” This from a man who’s built a mini-empire of concert tours, best sellers, and restaurants, and who could probably rest on his laurels somewhere besides the cab of a semi. “I want to collect all that used grease and distribute it to commercial fishermen along the coast to use as fuel for their boats.”

Buffett’s food-centric epiphany came from a green tomato. Actually, the Green Tomato, his giant green surf van converted to run on used cooking oil, a process that is actually relatively simple compared with using biodiesel. The van is hard to miss, and driving around the United States in search of swells, Buffett found himself acting like an ambassador for the grease engine movement. “I felt like a teacher because I was giving lectures everywhere I went about the benefits of burning grease,” he says.

Along with the usual suspects—surf bums and eco-hippies—commercial fishermen were anxious to hear his pitch. “These guys are always being screwed by the high cost of diesel,” Buffett says. And among fishermen, no one is more familiar with being screwed by high fuel costs and measly returns than the American shrimper. While shrimp prices have declined due to the flood of farmed shrimp onto the market, most of it imported from Asia, the same cannot be said for fuel.

Photo: Chris Dixon

Greased Lightning

Buffett’s own cooking-oil-powered ride, the Green Tomato

Almost a year after getting the Green Tomato on the road, Buffett and surfing cohort Chris Dixon, a journalist and fellow ocean enthusiast, were paddleboarding on a South Carolina creek when they started talking about the larger potential of veggie fuel. The two realized there was a perfect convergence of possibilities right there in Myrtle Beach. There was a Margaritaville restaurant producing gallons of used fry oil every week, a struggling local shrimping economy, and chefs with a desire to wean themselves off imported seafood. With a little financial assistance and some retooling, they thought, shrimpers could use the restaurant’s used oil to go trawling, return with a bounty for the kitchen, and the by-product of that cooking would be more fuel for their green engines.

But first they needed a test subject, and they found a willing participant in Captain Neal Cooksey. Cooksey had two important components of the equation: a trawler, the Hailey Marie, docked at Folly Beach, and an understanding of the cultural significance, and fragile state, of the Southern shrimp industry. Still, putting their idea into practice would become more science project than cultural mission. Massive amounts of veggie oil had to be collected, stored, and transported for filtration. After filtration, which happens via centrifuge, the oil had to be heated for use on board the boats, and the trawler’s engines needed to be retrofitted to burn it.

Buffett and Dixon found their grease monkey in Randy Holton, who’s transformed dozens of vehicles into oil-burning machines, and who’s been known to roll up his sleeves and clean fryers in exchange for grease. Beyond the mechanics, it took jumping through several regulatory hoops for the Margaritaville crew to ultimately get the project off the ground. But this summer, as the Hailey Marie cruises the coastal waters, a familiar smell will waft over the ocean—the aroma of french fries, hush puppies, and deep-fried shrimp.