‘No one is going to run’
For Steffes, power drives business
- Read a 1996 Journal-World article about Dennis Steffes opening the nightclub Tremors. In 2002, Steffes changed the name of the club to The Last Call.
Dennis Steffes – owner of the Lawrence nightclubs Last Call and Coyotes – says his passion is automobiles.
His body language says something different. When he’s talking about his stable of 15 cars – mostly Porsches that he’s customized to “look like airplanes” – he’s quiet and relaxed.
But now, he shows the signs of a passionate man. He leans forward in his chair as his black tailored suit and button-down shirt begin to crease. His head – complete with slicked-back hair and a ponytail – begins to bob as his voice rises. And his hands – one adorned with a single gold ring on his middle finger, and the other supporting a large gold wristwatch – move with every word he speaks.
Steffes is not talking about cars now. He’s talking about control.
“It is U.S. and Russia all over again,” Steffes says of how he manages security at his controversial hip-hop club Last Call, 729 N.H. “You have to create it where there is a power stance there – where there is no mistaking who runs this place when you come in the front door.
“We operate under this mutual destructive deterrent (philosophy). : That’s why I have armed staff on duty. That is why we are as visible as we are. The purpose of these kids and thugs or wannabes is that they want to feel powerful.
“When you take that away, all of a sudden the interest is not there anymore. Why would someone pull a gun out and wave it around or fire some shots in the air? Because everybody screams and runs and the power is now on your end.
“The bottom line is you may end up doing that (at Last Call). You might pull a gun out, but you’re going to have about five other ones pointing right back at you. And no one is going to run.”
This is the man Lawrence City Hall is doing battle with.
Steffes and City Hall are clashing on a couple of fronts. The bar owner is challenging the city’s smoking ban, claiming it is unconstitutional. He has taken that case to the Kansas Supreme Court, which could issue a ruling any day now.
He’s also in the center of a storm over deteriorating nighttime safety conditions in downtown. In May 2006, seven shots were fired inside Last Call, sending 200 people fleeing into the street. Lawrence police officers also have confiscated several illegal weapons from cars in parking lots near Last Call.
Although City Hall leaders are careful to not point only at Steffes, the activity around his club has led to a discussion about creating a more stringent licensing process for Lawrence bars and nightclubs.
Steffes’ accent is German, with a mix of many other dialects. His voice – many times soft-spoken with a hint of a stammer – strikes the ear as being different but still hard to place.
That’s in part because Steffes has lived a little bit of everywhere. He was born in Bulgaria but began his grammar schooling in Germany. His last citizenship before coming to America in 1984 was French. He also spent significant time in Libya and Italy, where he finished his secondary education in a Roman Catholic school.
At one point, he became fluent in six languages – German, French, Russian, Italian, Arabic and Bulgarian – mainly by watching foreign movies over and over until he began to understand them.
Steffes’ parents were engineers for the petroleum industry, and he started to follow in those footsteps. He has a master’s degree in polymer chemistry and a doctorate in experimental physics.
“My mother is always good to point this out,” Steffes says with a laugh. “‘What happened to you?’ she says. ‘You were this great student. You should be running DuPont by now,’ she says.”
Steffes, 42, has put his degrees to use. He worked as a chemical engineer for a German automotive paint company, a job that played into his passion for automobiles.
But eventually he left Europe and landed in the mid-1980s in the Kansas City metro area, near where he had spent some summers as a youth on a family farm in Iowa.
He ran a business in Oak Park Mall called AutoBuf of KC. It started as a car accessory store but morphed into a custom car shop that served customers “who never asked how much,” Steffes says.
He bought his automotive paint from a little store in Lawrence, Lonnie’s Auto Paints, near the corner of 23rd Street and Learnard Avenue. One day, after years of hearing the old man at the store say he was going to close the shop, Steffes bought it. He was a good paint salesman, and soon his German friends from the automotive paint giant Spies Hecker called him about helping the company break into the U.S. market.
Steffes began traveling across the country doing seminars and training sessions for auto body shops and other large buyers of paint. One year in the early 1990s, he was gone 43 weeks out of the year.
Then his daughter came along. Steffes has been raising his 7-year-old daughter as a single father since she was about a year old. The travel needed to stop. So he started buying property around his small paint shop at 23rd and Learnard, and he still owns a good portion of the block. He used the buildings to house the training workshops that he previously was conducting across the country.
There was a problem: entertainment. Bring a group of car guys to town, and they’re bound to partake in some nighttime activities. Steffes didn’t necessarily want them spending their time with drunk fraternity boys at the bars in Lawrence.
As fate would have it, an acquaintance of Steffes owned a bar in town, Club 729. The bar owner wanted out. At first, Steffes said he dismissed the suggestion that he buy the bar. Then he realized his company’s entertainment budget was more than what the guy was asking for the bar.
“The bar business, I got into that by accident,” Steffes says.
A lightning rod
Like most accidents, there are many people who wished it never would have happened.
Former Douglas County District Attorney Jerry Wells is among a group of residents convinced that Last Call – Steffes’ hip-hop club – is creating a serious safety concern for the community by attracting some people who tote guns and are willing to use them.
Wells thinks Steffes could do a lot to ease the tensions.
“The old bartender’s rule is ‘Change the music, change the crowd,'” Wells says.
Wells says he’s not trying to be stereotypical about hip-hop music or its fans. He says it’s clear not all Last Call patrons are causing trouble, but he’s convinced a significant percentage of the club’s customers “really pose a risk to the community.”
Wells hopes Steffes will become more “community-minded” and take action to change his club. But Wells says he’s seen enough and thinks the city needs to take steps to get Steffes to clean up his operations.
“It is coming a time when some action needs to be taken,” Wells says. “Sooner or later the odds are going to catch up. If that group of people continues to come to Lawrence, someone is going to get hurt or killed.”
Other critics of Steffes have faulted him on that front too, pointing to back taxes that Steffes has owed on some of his properties. Steffes owes about $4,500 in back property taxes on a Glenview Drive property. The Kansas Department of Revenue also has filed a tax lien seeking about $5,000 in back sales taxes from October 2002 that were accrued by his AutoBuf business.
Steffes, though, says the back property taxes are simply the result of an escrow mix-up following a change he has made in banks. On the sales tax issue, he says the state is mistaken in its calculations and he does not owe any back taxes. He is contesting the state’s demand for payment.
And he responds to Wells’ and others’ concerns about his club by saying it is time for the city to improve its enforcement. He said he’s already done his part.
Following the May 2006 incident during which shots were fired inside Last Call – an incident that he says caused “heads to roll and fingers to be broken” – he installed metal detectors and added armed security guards and electronic surveillance equipment.
He says he’s doing his job to keep weapons out of his club, but he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t own the parking lot. The city does.
“I am making a difference in my circle,” Steffes says. “I am trying to prove a point that I can get the respect of any controversial gathering, I can make them behave and I can allow them to have a good time without the repercussions in there.
“As far as I’m concerned, if there is a gun in the car, that means it is not in the club, and that means I’ve done my job.”
That’s an attitude City Hall leaders don’t appreciate. City Manager David Corliss confirms that he has made Steffes, along with the owners of a few other drinking establishments, aware of the city’s concerns.
“They think their responsibility ends at the door,” Corliss says. “I think it is fair to say that if they attract problems, they have some responsibility in helping us solve those problems.
“We just fundamentally disagree.”
The bar business
It is peaceful at Steffes’ rural Douglas County home. A quick tour of his property includes a look at part of his Porsche collection.
Other than the black chain-link fence that surrounds the property, the signs of a man who clearly likes to be in control aren’t as obvious here.
Steffes once told a story about how when he was in the paint business, he would send a “recon team” into the major cities where his company was looking to sell paint.
The team would prepare for Steffes’ arrival by researching the large paint buyers and paint sellers in the market. But it wouldn’t stop with the basics. The team would dig for details – what type of food the executives liked, what type of entertainment they preferred.
They then would report those details so Steffes was equipped with everything he would need to know about the people and the city, down to details such as the best Italian restaurants or the hippest nightclubs. His recon team members even would make sure that the servers at a restaurant would be able to recognize Steffes and greet him by name when he arrived with a client.
“Even though you walked into a strange place, you dominated it,” Steffes says.
But Steffes doesn’t come off that way as he strolls across his property. He mainly is just doting over his daughter, Monica.
“This is why I do everything I do,” he says as he points at her.
That includes getting into the bar business full-time. Eventually, Steffes and the German paint company parted ways after the company wanted to move the training center to a larger metro area, Steffes says.
Steffes says the bar business looked easy to him, and it provided him with the flexible schedule he needed to raise his daughter.
One of their shared hobbies is collecting exotic animals. Steffes built his daughter a special room on the ground floor of his house – a young girl’s paradise filled with teddy bears – in part so she could have a better view of the zebras and kangaroo.
Steffes’ parents are down from Iowa for an early summer vacation. It’s the final touch on a traditional family scene. His parents tell stories – like how a young Steffes always wanted to grow up to be a clown. They laugh like families laugh.
His father, though, says some things haven’t changed with Steffes.
“Once he becomes convinced something is right, he’ll stick with it,” says Bob Steffes. “He won’t let go very easily.”
That’s what Steffes’ peers in the bar industry have noticed, too. Some declined to talk for this story, and others said they really didn’t know Steffes that well. Privately, some wish he would change the format of his club. Some admire his fortitude.
But nearly all who have observed him for a while notice the same thing.
“I’m not sure he is really a person who makes compromises on much,” says Nick Carroll, who owns the Replay Lounge and Jackpot Saloon in downtown Lawrence. “He just seems to put his foot down and say, ‘This is the way it is.'”
Steffes says he doesn’t have any plans to change the format at Last Call. When he first opened it as Tremors, the club was geared toward a more middle-aged crowd. But it is tough to make a living off a demographic that only goes out once every couple of months, Steffes found.
For a short time, the club was a traditional college bar. That experiment produced more minor in possession violations than Steffes could live with, he says.
Last Call is staying hip-hop, in large part, because to change would go against Steffes’ principles. If anything, the problems – particularly the May 2006 incident where shots were fired in his club – have hardened his stance.
“I had a choice to make when that happened,” Steffes says. “Are you going to roll over and play dead, and allow the degenerates of this society to run your business and to run how we do business in this town?
“I’m sorry, I’m not a quitter. When somebody comes in and shakes my tree like that, I can either equip appropriately to deal with them, or I can just shut the doors and go away because they’ve won.
“I have a problem with allowing them to win.”