Bander Snatched

Looks like another Tempe institution is a goner.

A couple of months back, a pair of Arizona State University grads who own a couple of tony Scottsdale bars snagged Bandersnatch -- a lowbrow mainstay of downtown Tempe's quickly disappearing bar scene. At the time, longtime customers and employees of the former brew pub immediately questioned the new ownership's commitment to keeping the 28-year-old establishment out of the city's hands.

That's because Bandersnatch rests on a plot of land -- just across Fifth Street, west of ASU's Sun Devil Stadium -- that city officials have targeted for an overhaul as part of Tempe's Downtown Redevelopment Concept Plan.

While Matt Engstrom and Barrett Rinzler have yet to surrender Bander's to the jaws of Tempe's eminent domain clause -- they insist the bar isn't closed for good -- it looks as though such a move may not be far off. In any case, the business partners certainly didn't win the favor of the hundreds of beer-guzzling gridiron fans who showed up December 6 for pregame festivities before the state high school football championships at Sun Devil Stadium.

The minivans kept rolling up, and one load of fans after the other was told of the latest bad news.

"You can pay to park here, but Bander's is closed," former Bandersnatch cook David Printy told a hefty group of confused Mountain View High School boosters. For $10 a pop, the cars were parked and packed into Bander's tiny lot. But there was no beer, no wings and no congregation on the Bandersnatch patio.

Engstrom and Rinzler -- who also own Scottsdale nightclubs Martini Ranch and Elixir -- haven't shut down the old pub entirely, they say.

As of December 2, they're just "scaling back operations," according to Engstrom.

"We're going to an event-only basis. It's simply a shift in the focus of the club," says Engstrom, who along with Rinzler bought Bander's from former owners Joe and Addie Mocca just two and a half months ago adding it to their small empire of Valley nightlife. Now, they say, Bandersnatch will be open for about four events per month. "Bander's just wasn't doing anything as far as revenue goes. But the events are where Bander's dominates," Engstrom says.

It's a surprising turn of events, given the talk at the time Engstrom and Rinzler purchased Bandersnatch. Engstrom says the two put in $150,000 to renovate the bar and kitchen, and beef up the pub's audio/visual equipment, while yanking the custom brewery. They kept almost the entire kitchen staff on board, and offered jobs to all of the then-current employees at Bander's or one of their other venues.

As promised, they worked with local promoters Charlie Levy and Mark "Jas" Tynan to bring in a younger crowd with a Friday night happy hour and an underground hip-hop DJ set.

And even now, Engstrom boasts that Bander's was doing 30 to 40 percent more business on Cardinals and Sun Devils game days than when the Moccas ran the joint.

Joe Mocca, who owned Bander's for 16 years, says that he was assured by Engstrom things would stay the same for "at least a year and a half or two."

So, why is the place all but shuttered?

According to the members of Tempe band Steppchild -- who drew sizable crowds when they played the occasional gig at Bander's when the Moccas were in control -- and the pub's former kitchen manager Steve Stutzke, who worked there for eight years until last week, Engstrom and Rinzler weren't as committed as they say they were.

The naysayers complain that the schedule of daily wait staff was cut in half, from a dozen waitresses on any given day under the Moccas to five or six.

"Every waitress was complaining. Tips were way down," says Stutzke, refuting Engstrom's claim that waitresses were making twice as much on game days as they were under the previous ownership.

Steppchild's Adam Jacobson, meanwhile, says his band had a commitment from the Moccas to play a Halloween Black Sabbath tribute show, until the new management told the band they wouldn't be honoring any previously booked events, according to Jacobson.

So much for Engstrom and Rinzler's promise to turn Bander's into a viable live music venue, says Steppchild drummer Adam Roach.

"You know, we were a pretty hot gig at the Bander," Roach says. "Who knows what in the hell those guys were thinking?"

Engstrom says it was a legitimate mistake, and it sounds like he's right. He chalks up the diss to a Tempe ordinance that requires the new owners of a live music venue to go through the process of obtaining a permit -- even if the previous owners had one.

"If I can offer any kind of an apology to those guys," Engstrom says, "I just want them to know there was no ill intent involved there."

Tynan, while disappointed his underground hip-hop sets -- which he says were slowly building up a loyal following -- have died, defends Engstrom and Rinzler's commitment.

"Sure, it's kinda frustrating that it didn't work out," says Tynan, who turned Kind Fridays at Club Freedom in Tempe into a mega-success. "But the reality of it is, their intentions were good. . . . They're just two guys."

Meanwhile, the cooperative goodwill that existed between the new guys and the Moccas seems to have faded since the sale became final September 22. Engstrom says he tried to keep an open dialogue with the Moccas, knowing what the couple put into Bander's over the years.

"We tried to get their input so that we could make Bander's a success," Engstrom says. "But we really haven't seen Joe and Addie since they sold the place. If they were going to be so upset by what we're doing here, they shouldn't have sold it to us."

Joe Mocca still maintains that had he believed he could prevent the City of Tempe from claiming eminent domain on the property for a city parking lot -- as he says he was told -- Bander's would still be his and Addie's today.

"No one came and put a .45 to my head," Joe Mocca says, "but it was made pretty clear to me that I should take whatever offer was on the table."

Neil Calfee, Tempe's principal planner, insisted when the sale became public that the city played no part in determining Bander's fate. He was not available for comment earlier this week.

But there's still a chance for Bander's, Engstrom insists. The pub will be open for the Cardinals' two remaining home games this season, as well as the Fiesta Bowl in January.

"In fact, we have the ability to open back up next week if we want to," Engstrom says. "There's more than a 50 percent chance that we could open back up once the spring semester starts."

After the last week, though, Stutzke isn't holding his breath.

"At first, I thought they really wanted to make Bander's a success," Stutzke says. "But now, I don't believe anything they say."