By MIKE PATRICK
North Idaho Business Journal
COEUR d’ALENE — Some run out of steam in four months.
So when the Robb family celebrates the Iron Horse Bar and Grill’s 40th anniversary on June 2, they have a deep understanding of — and even deeper appreciation for — what it’s taken to get this far.
“It wasn’t brains so much as absolute luck,” says owner Tom Robb, now 71.
While there has certainly been a kind twist or two of fate over those four decades, Robb is practicing humility. As a former business instructor at North Idaho College and as a manager, he knew very well how to launch a successful enterprise. It starts with people, and it ends with people.
The story of the Iron Horse officially began when Tom had lunch with Phil Graue and bandied about Tom’s idea of “this Fourth and Sherman thing.” Next up was Barb Renner, who was brought into the circle that became Iron Horse’s original three owners.
“Barb knew the food thing real good,” Tom says, “and Phil knew all the dances with bankers. Plus Phil had some money and I didn’t.”
Now, 40 years later, Tom and his 45-year-old son Aaron acknowledge that people got them to this enviable place of overseeing a business that has held up well even under the assault of a lengthy recession.
“We’ve been saying it all along: It’s our employees who bring us success,” says Aaron, a high school football star at Gonzaga Prep who then played at Notre Dame.
At Iron Horse, none of the employees has a title — not even Aaron and Tom.
“I don’t mean any disrespect, but someone will open a little lunch counter and say they have an executive chef,” says Tom. “We’ve never had a chef. We have a bunch of people here who have been with us a long time, and that’s that.”
A bunch of people stay at Iron Horse a long time in part because of one of Tom’s top business principles.
“We never lay off anybody,” he says of the 60 or so employees. “If they do a good job for us, they know they’re not going to get laid off when business slows down a little bit. We might have to reduce their hours at times, but they’ll still be working.”
That’s not just the right thing to do — it’s good business, Tom believes. While Iron Horse employees have a strong sense of job security and reciprocate with loyalty and hard work, Iron Horse benefits by having an experienced, highly trained staff ready for the busiest times of the week or year. And as Aaron points out, having long-time staff builds stronger relationships with Iron Horse’s customers, many of whom are local residents.
Customers have been fond of Iron Horse ever since Tom opened the doors at 407 E. Sherman Ave. on June 2, 1972. Admitting that “I’m bigger on yesterday than I am tomorrow,” Tom Robb relishes talking about how luck and hard work paved the way for a success story.
With Renner and Graue, Robb bought the dining room — previously the Manor House Restaurant — for $38,000 in April 1972. After extensive remodeling, they opened the restaurant on June 2. Expansion quickly occurred in leaps and bounds — especially leaps.
“Here we had a full-service restaurant at 407 Sherman that could sell beer and wine but not liquor,” he says. “Then, in August or September, we bought the Brunswick Cafe at 411 Sherman for $53,000. That had a full liquor license.”
But what Iron Horse didn’t have was the space in between. Pines Bakery, owned by Willard Largent, occupied 409 Sherman, and Robb envisioned it as an ideal place to sell liquor.
“Willard is one of the nicest guys who ever lived in Coeur d’Alene,” Robb says of the 97-year-old who lives in Southern California now. Back in ’72, that nice guy agreed to let Robb lease 409 Sherman in exchange for letting Largent sell his baked goods in the front of 411 Sherman.
Never mind that by the end of 1972, Tom Robb had three different landlords with three different buildings. What mattered was that all three of those buildings were now connected into one impressive business.
“We were pretty much rolling by the end of ‘72,” he says.
And Iron Horse, named because of Tom’s affinity for trains that goes back to his childhood in Boise, has been rolling ever since. The Robbs own the 411 site and, through Tom’s keen business acumen, the large parking lot in back.
“They offered to sell us the back parking lot for $35,000 a few years after we opened,” he recalls. “I thought that was outrageous, so a few years later we paid $100,000 for it.”
Fortune has managed to smile on the family business a couple of times, thanks to Aaron.
“Back in the early ’90s, I said ‘Let’s get some pool tables and other games in here,” Aaron says of the 411 location. The room was dark with low ceilings, he says, making a good place to have a drink or two and shoot pool. Business picked up.
Then, about a decade ago, Aaron imposed on his dad to raise the room’s ceilings, brighten the place up and offer another kind of entertainment.
“We decided to try live music, you know, just for a weekend,” Aaron says.
“He just wore me down,” Tom admits. “I wasn’t in favor of that.”
But the bar and restaurant, which was doing well anyway, saw its revenue double with the advent of live music. Tom’s been a believer ever since.
Both of the Robb boys see big things ahead, thanks in part to location but even more to people.
“Downtown has come a long way over the years. I just believe downtown is too nice — it’s the prettiest place in town,” Aaron says. “We’re a local place. We certainly get the tourists in the summer, but the locals support us all year long.”
Tom says that even at the worst of times, Iron Horse’s loyal following ensured the best of times weren’t far away.
“There were times, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I didn’t think we could make payroll,” he says. “It never crossed my mind to quit or not fight.”
But Iron Horse is thriving now. Nine times over the past 12 years, Iron Horse has led the state in purchasing liquor, meaning it likely has sold the most, too. Tom’s other son, Mike, runs the Iron Horse Bar and Grill in Spokane Valley, where it just celebrated its 15th anniversary. Quitting or selling isn’t in the Robb family forecast.
“My wife and I, our sons and their wives, we’re all in this business,” Tom says. “The potential is there to do more business.”