The River Wild

Change of venue: Many of the judges and attorneys who frequented The River Cafe took their business elsewhere when the new owner altered the ambience.
Deron Neblett

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no good deed goes unpunished. Few have gone so wrong so fast on such a scale as in the recent dustup at The River Cafe (3615 Montrose Boulevard, 713-529-0088). New owner Mark (a.k.a. Marcula) Stauffer and two staff members recently came to blows, and now there are plans for a lawsuit.

It all began, as the best epic tragedies always do, with a woman. Erstwhile River Cafe general manager John Vamvakias explains: "My girlfriend, Shannon, and [Stauffer] used to go out together. This was years ago, but he always remained friends with her. I've been in the restaurant business, and so in order for me to support Shannon, Mark offered to buy a restaurant and come in as the silent partner."

Loren Wolf, who had owned and operated The River Cafe since 1984, was willing to sell the popular Montrose restaurant.

"On January 29 Stauffer paid me $1.4 million cash for the lot, building, fixtures and good will," Wolf recounts. "I didn't want to sell to somebody with a lease, because I didn't want to be collecting monthly checks, but he met my price." The money came from an inheritance, according to Vamvakias and others.

On Tuesday, May 22, following an altercation between Stauffer, Vamvakias and another manager, John Trevino, Vamvakias and Trevino filed separate police reports in which Vamvakias claims Stauffer slapped him on the head, and Trevino alleges he was hit in the face with a book bag. The once-serene restaurant immediately closed, and a sign on the door read, "Closed for Remodeling." In actuality, according to numerous witnesses, the entire staff walked out on Stauffer and returned two days later only when Stauffer agreed not to show his face in the establishment. In other words, he had been banned from his own bar, a feat that may be unique in the annals of what many refer to as the "hospitality industry."

Vamvakias explains: "Mark is not allowed in there. If he shows up, the current managers will settle up with the customers, lock the doors and leave." Both Vamvakias and Trevino no longer work at The River Cafe.

In the less than four months that Stauffer operated the business, his behavior became, if not the talk of the town, then at least the talk along Montrose Boulevard. The River Cafe was a growing concern under Wolf, featuring good food and a relaxed atmosphere. It drew a clientele that ran more to middle-aged attorneys, judges and journalists than Gen-X ravers or dot-commies with business cards declaring they specialize in, say, "content strategy for new media."

Stauffer, whose personal sense of style runs toward tattoos, lots of tattoos, and pierced this and that, did not seem like a natural fit for The River Cafe, and his changes were not welcomed by many of the regulars. Dwight Chapman, a Montrose real estate investor who has been a customer for as long as the River has flowed, recalls that Stauffer "insisted on showing cartoons on the television over the bar, and when we asked to change the channel to a sports event, he became abusive. Then he took out the television and replaced it with just a TV cabinet. He also took out all the artwork that was up on the walls, and replaced it with paintings he had done himself and had the walls sponge-painted in early varicose-vein style. But I always got along with him."

Vamvakias explains that the television was a shell. "He would put dolls in the shell with weird stuff done to them, and tell people they represented customers that he had banned."

Wolf, despite selling the business, is still distraught about his buyer's behavior. "I spent 17 years busting my ass to build up that business, and he wrecked it in a few months. Would you want to eat in a restaurant where the owner sat around in boxer shorts and a T-shirt with no shoes? One older couple who had been regular customers for years asked him to turn down the music a little as they were sitting under a speaker. He told them they should leave because it was his restaurant. Then, as they were walking out, he took off a tennis shoe and threw it at them."

Vibraphonist Harry Sheppard, one of Houston's most accomplished jazz musicians, played at The River Cafe on Tuesday nights for years. Now he plays at the Noche Cocina y Bar (2409 Montrose Boulevard, 713-529-8559). "This move is permanent," Shepherd avows. "We were there for nine years, building up an audience, and [Stauffer] ran it off in six weeks. Personally, he was a big fan of mine, but there is no sense in going down with a sinking ship." The new Noche has also gained the River Cafe's chef, Luna Alazar, a bartender or two, and half of the waitstaff. Many old River Cafe customers have also moved up the boulevard to Noche.

Stauffer was contacted by the Houston Press via a personal visit to his Montrose residence, since he is not listed in the telephone book, and no one at the restaurant had a number for him. An assistant who answered the door explained that people who wanted to contact Stauffer had to first call her cell phone number, but then declined to give that out. Stauffer did not respond directly. He did telephone the person who located the house for the Press, Dwight Chapman.

"I got a call from Mark at 10:30 p.m.," Chapman says. "The little fucking viper; he's pissed that I brought someone from the Houston Press over to his house, invading his privacy, etc., etc. He said I'm no longer his friend, and I asked if I could have an affidavit to that effect and hung up on him."

"It looks like the other manager, John, wants to move forward with a lawsuit," Vamvakias says, "and I'm going to join in….I have the videotape" from May 22. A third employee, who did not wish to comment at this time, may also be joining in the lawsuit on related grounds.

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