Mike Robb and The Iron Horse

The corner of Sprague and Moffit, occupied by The Iron Horse for ten years now, has a long history of serving the people of the Spokane Valley. My personal memories of the property go back to 1967 when my father, Don Swanson, and his partner, Don Barden, bought the piece from Stella Torrey.

It was a time when the pioneers of the Spokane Valley were all but gone, their children were reaching retirement, and the Spokane Valley was quickly moving ahead. Sprague Avenue was only two lanes and the train still paralleled the avenue 30 feet to the north. The two-story house the Torrey’s had built in 1932 stood as a reminder to the hundreds of babies delivered there at Torrey’s Maternal Home years before. Behind the house, Mrs. Torrey still operated Torrey’s Lockers, the frozen storage rental units where customers stored their beef and other meat. Orrin Torrey, by then diseased, also ran a blacksmith shop further down Sprague and had built the lockers and engineered the refrigeration system himself.

But the late Sixties had different demands and higher uses for the property, and so after running the locker business and renting out the attached smokehouse and butcher shop a few years, my parents bulldozed the building and moved the house around the corner to 11216 E. Main, where it is today. In 1972 they built the current building for Mr. Steak, Spokane Valley’s first national steak house.

Over in Coeur d’Alene that same year, a nine-year-old kid named Mike Robb went to work at his father’s new restaurant, the Iron Horse. A former school teacher, the elder Robb, Tom, built a family-run Coeur d’Alene institution that is still going strong. Mr. Steak ,on the other hand, pulled up steaks so to speak in the late Seventies, and my parents went through a succession of tenants until 1997 when Mike told his dad he needed a new place to work.

“Even though I had worked in the business since I was a kid, I did not have a clue,” Mike said recently, ” until you own a business, you don’t know what it takes. The first year was bleak.” Mike eventually decided to turn down the lights and turn up the music and said, “Let’s have some fun.” Business started improving and Mike’s version of the Iron Horse has gone on to establish itself as a popular, comfortable gathering place known for great steaks and prime rib, warm atmosphere and good service. The service is so good because he has people like Jeana, who has worked their from the start and Jo, who actually has been at that location about six years longer than The Iron Horse has been there.

That kind of low turn-over is unusual in the industry today, but then Mike is rather unusual, in a good sort of way. For example, he has never spent a dime on advertising, “I’d rather spend $200 on an improvement than on an ad in the paper.” Mike calls himself a slow mover when it comes to change and has never gotten around to adding entertainment, which the other Iron Horse is well known for. ” Who knows I might someday,” he said, ” but I would rather keep things simple.”

Perhaps Mike’s most unusual attribute is also The Iron Horse’s greatest secret to success. People like to support a hard-working, friendly owner and Mike, dressed casually in jeans, tennis shoes, ball cap and apron spends hours each day serving and greeting his customers. He is in his comfort zone and it is obvious he learned more from his upbringing in the business than he lets on.

Mike’s simplicity, work ethic, and friendliness, while hard to find today were just the way people did business in the Valley’s early days. He is conducting his business in the traditional way like Stella Torrey’s parents, the Schafers, who ran a mineral water business and ski resort where the Ponderosa sub-division is today. While the traces of their live’s work has long since slipped away the sturdy and dedicated way they took care of their customers can still be found in rare places Mike Robb’s Iron Horse In the Spokane Valley.

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