Drinking Games

Bureaucratic bumbling leaves two Tempe restaurateurs high and . . . dry

Robert Stempkowski knows restaurants.

He's been a bartender, a server, and a manager. He's kept the plates coming at the Valley's hot spots (Richardson's) and way-too-posh spots (Mary Elaine's). As a freelance critic, he's eaten some of the best food metropolitan Phoenix has to offer, and undoubtedly some of the worst, too.

But what Stempkowski didn't know, until recently, was bureaucracy. The Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control has kindly given him a crash course.

Robert Stempkowski, left, and Stephen Wolff are empty-glass and glassy-eyed after months of battling for a liquor license.
Tony Blei
Robert Stempkowski, left, and Stephen Wolff are empty-glass and glassy-eyed after months of battling for a liquor license.

And, boy, is it a doozy.

After decades in the business, Stempkowski decided last year to take the plunge and open a place of his own, Urban Campfire. (Weird trivia: Stempkowski's partner in the venture, Stephen Wolff, is married to his ex-wife. I swear, I couldn't make this stuff up.) They plan to serve cheap eats to the college crowd during the day, then red wine and finer fare, with an emphasis on hearty smoked meats, at night.

The odd couple made a deal to move into the spot long occupied by Greasy Tony's, a hole in the wall just outside the ASU campus that closed last November. Tony Giorgianni, the titular Tony, sold to them the place's fixtures and its liquor license. The license alone cost $13,000.

Giorgianni cashed the check, but the state liquor department held up the transfer in January. Greasy Tony's owed the city back taxes.

That was just a blip. But when Greasy Tony's settled the debt and the state lifted its hold in April, Stempkowski and Wolff learned something shocking.

Tony's son, John Giorgianni, had since sold the license. Again. This time, the buyer was a restaurant in North Phoenix. Records show John Giorgianni pocketed another $12,000.

It seems pretty clear that Greasy Tony's pulled a fast one. But it's a fast one that should have been a fast fix.

You only had to compare the two applications to see that Stempkowski and Wolff were the first to file paperwork with the state. Their application, complete with a notarized signature from Tony Giorgianni, was filed back in December. The second buyer didn't get his notarized signature from Giorgianni's son until March.

But no one was willing to sort out the problem. Instead, the state stopped Stempkowski and Wolff from proceeding, without any real explanation. Buyer Number Two was simply presumed to be the license's rightful owner.

When Stempkowski and Wolff tried to explain that there had been a mistake, they found themselves in a nightmare straight out of Kafka.

"Nobody gave a shit," Wolff says.

"Well, people gave a shit," Stempkowski corrects him. "But everybody said, 'It's not my responsibility.'"

The partners wrote letters. (Three of them, complete with dozens of pages of exhibits.) They made phone calls. (Three dozen, they estimate.) They visited liquor department offices enough that staffers began to recognize them.

"They'd cringe when they saw us coming," says Wolff, only half-joking.

The whole time, they got nothing but hoops to jump through. And even though they kept jumping, they didn't get anywhere.

When they showed up in person, for example, they were told to write a letter — and mail it to the very spot they were standing. When they mailed letters, they never got responses. In their two months of phone calls, they encountered "investigators" who wouldn't investigate and a licensing director who said that it wasn't his job to deal with their license.

Some liquor staffers thought it might be a criminal matter. They told the partners to contact the Tempe police.

But the police aren't experts in the minutiae of liquor laws. They wanted to know what the liquor department thought. The liquor department, of course, didn't think much of anything.

Meanwhile, the second buyer's application was sailing through. When Stempkowski and Wolff asked how to stop it, a liquor staffer suggested they lobby the Phoenix City Council, which was set to vote on the license in May.

Now, there's a great idea. Rather than state staffers picking up the phone themselves and explain that there was potentially a problem with the license, they wanted the restaurateurs to do it.

Here's how desperate Stempkowski and Wolff were: They actually gave it a try. Stempkowski showed up at two consecutive meetings, begging the City Council to stop the process.

The Council didn't give him the time of day.

"I believe my chief of staff said we've already decided to pass this," Councilwoman Peggy Bilsten told Stempkowski before the meeting. (Bilsten didn't return calls for comment.)

There's democracy for you. Urban Campfire didn't have a chance.

I don't blame Bilsten. Council members aren't experts on liquor licensure. This is a fairly technical matter, after all. The liquor department should never have sent Stempkowski there in the first place.

But here's the difference between restaurants and bureaucracies.

At restaurants, people hustle. If there's, say, a fire in the kitchen, the staff doesn't stand around discussing whose job it is to extinguish it. Whoever's closest just puts the damn thing out.

In bureaucracies, people have job descriptions. They're not much into fire extinguishers. Or even troubleshooting.

Stempkowski and Wolff were lost in the liquor department's paper shuffle for 10 weeks.

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