The City Slicker
IF IT HADN’T BEEN for a $400 cream-colored 1980 Mercedes, Farhad Ghafarzade might have gone to dental school. Ghafarzade bought the car while studying molecular biology at University of California, Santa Cruz and, just for a lark, decided to convert the car’s engine to run on used cooking oil, which emits (depending on the oil used) around 70 percent less carbon dioxide than diesel fuel. “I was the crazy guy who went around collecting grease from the dining halls,” he says.
After driving the car for two years and 50,000 miles, Ghafarzade sold it for $2,800, promptly upgrading to a Ford Econoline van, which he also converted to run on veggie oil. When he sold that van for $5,600 ($2,600 more than what he paid for it), it hit him: “I can earn a living doing this.”
Indeed, grease has become Ghafarzade’s way of life. Last July, the 25-year-old rented a two-car garage on N Interstate Avenue, where he now charges people to convert their diesel-powered vehicles into vegetable-oil-fueled eco-machines. So far he’s completed about 60 conversions, and his mechanical handiwork is in high demand—especially among restaurant owners, who have a ready supply of grease at their disposal. Ghafarzade converted a pickup truck for Lucky Lab Brewing Company, and did the same for ¿Por Qué No? taqueria, whose owners sent Ghafarzade the 1991 Ford E350 ambulance it uses to shuttle equipment between its two locations. Most recently, he’s retooled the engine of a Volkswagen TDI driven by Hopworks Urban Brewery owner Christian Ettinger, who also asked Ghafarzade to convert the brewery’s beer-making equipment to run on grease (a project that’s a work in progress). Still, even with a steady flow of customers, Ghafarzade admits that dentistry would have been more lucrative. (Standard conversions run around $2,500.) “But it’s like, why not do something fun,” he says. “I’d rather have an interesting story to tell when I’m 65, and be that cool uncle, the one who did funky things.” And who, in the process, helped ease his environmental burden on the planet.