Drinking Games

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

When Urban Campfire opens later this month, it's almost certain that the place won't be permitted to sell alcohol. Not for its first six weeks, Stempkowski estimates.

That's even though Stempkowski and Wolff paid $13,000 to Greasy Tony's, and its owner cashed the check.

That's even though they spent 10 weeks on the phone and in the liquor department offices, lobbying.

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 that's even though they spent another $2,000 to buy a more restrictive license as a backup. They filed the paperwork for that one in late April, when it became clear the state wasn't going to unravel the first mess. There's little chance of it being released before mid-August, even if everything goes well.

And what are the odds of that happening?

People who know restaurants will tell you that opening without a liquor license is a huge problem, financially.

Just ask Robert Stempkowski. He's done his homework.

Typically, alcohol sales bring in at least 25 percent of the profits, he says. And restaurants don't have big profit margins.

"The booze is where you make the money," he acknowledges. "By not having a license for the first six weeks, we're looking at a loss of $25,000."

After Robert Stempkowski told me his horrific story last month, things started to happen.

First, Tempe Police tell me that they are, in fact, investigating. Perhaps not so coincidentally, they made this decision after Stempkowski threatened to call New Times, he tells me. But, hey, an investigation is an investigation.

The police say that they're preparing to send the case against Greasy Tony's to the county attorney, who will have to decide if it's worth pursuing.

(Greasy Tony's lawyer from the original sale didn't want to talk. He implied he may not be handling the matter anymore. I had no luck reaching Tony himself; I was told he's moved back to New Jersey.)

Second, 10 weeks after Stempkowski and Wolff began pestering the liquor department, someone finally realized there was a problem. On June 21, the department's deputy director sent Stempkowski a letter, noting "there is clearly a question as to the ownership of the listed license."

The department, he wrote, is opening an investigation into the license's ownership.

That's the good news.

The bad news is this: It took 10 weeks for someone to decide to make that decision.

Wes Kuhl, the department's spokesman, stresses the unusual nature of the case. "I'm not sure how it happened," he says of the license's double sale. "This is nothing I've run into in the seven years I've been here."

But Kuhl doesn't see much wrong with asking Stempkowski and Wolff to jump through hoop after hoop, including the disastrous trip to Phoenix City Council. "That's one of the steps in the process," he says.

If that's the case, we ought to look at changing the process.

There's no reason the liquor department shouldn't have opened an investigation 10 weeks ago.

There's no reason Urban Campfire should be forced to open without booze when everyone knew there was a problem back in April.

Now, Restaurant Number Two is also caught up in the mess. Its license has been put on hold as the liquor department finally begins its investigation.

Everybody's a loser in this one. Except, of course, the fine staffers at the Arizona Department of Liquor.

Hey, it wasn't their responsibility. And they couldn't care less.

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