'You're being robbed' 1978 armed robbery at the Branding Iron Restaurant in Preston, Minnesota never solved
'Do you want a hole in your belly?'
PRESTON, Minn. -- "A gun, rather than food, stuck to the ribs of Gordon Storhoff at the Branding Iron Restaurant in Preston."
With her first sentence and eye for detail, long-time Post-Bulletin crime reporter Jan Gregorson sets the stage and elevates an ordinary crime story into a pulpy drama set in small-town Preston, a town of now 1,408 people about 37 miles southeast of Rochester. It would be part of the folklore of the Branding Iron, a decades-old supper club, if anybody remembered it, but few people do.
It was Aug. 24, 1978. Today, restaurants and bars are seldom the target of brazen, in-the-open robberies, given the ubiquity of security cameras and declining use of paper money. They belong more to the realm of noir classics than real life ("Nobody robs restaurants," says Pumpkin in Pulp Fiction before he and his psycho girlfriend unsheathe their guns).
Old-fashioned armed hold-ups, such as the one that happened at the Preston restaurant forty-three years ago, bear almost the same relationship to us as turn-of-the-century train robberies did to them.
The Branding Iron robber was described in his late 20s, about 6-foot 1-inch tall, white but very tanned, wearing a denim outfit and having a near-Afro hairstyle. He was a bit of a blabber-mouth. Cops and robbers today are much more circumspect. Cops never reveal to reporters the amount stolen from banks and restaurant tills, and criminal types don't usually lurk around supper clubs.
When Storhoff, a Lanesboro painter, and his wife Elvira, a nurse at the then-Rochester State Hospital, drove into the parking lot of the supper club, the place was packed. The parking lot was full. A young man perched on a railing outside the club motioned them to an open parking space near where he was sitting.
The grateful couple soon realized they had fallen into a trap.
"When we got out of the car to thank him, he pointed a gun at my husband and said, 'I'll have your keys," Elvira said.
The robber impressed upon the Storhoffs that they were dealing with a bad hombre.
He told them he was wanted in five states for armed robbery and planned to rob the restaurant. When Gordon tried to talk the man out of the idea, hard steel was pressed against the Lanesboro man's ribs and he was asked, "Do you want a hole in your belly?"
It was an audacious act. The Branding Iron was reportedly filled with 600 customers, drawn to the restaurant's steak and seafood. Like a hard-bitten Humphrey Bogart character, the man put the gun under his jacket and ushered the couple into the restaurant at gunpoint.
He then poked the gun at the cashier's ribs and demanded all the bills in the cash register. Focused on the robbery, the robber didn't notice that Storhoff had slipped away. Racing into the bar area, he yelled, "You're being robbed." But with all the conviviality and hubbub in the bar, the bartender didn't hear Storhoff until he yelled his warning again.
"I guess he was just too busy taking money to notice that my husband had left," said Elvira Gordon.
Despite the hullabaloo raised, the gunman made off with $300 - about $1,200 in today's dollars - and the Storhoff car. There were no injuries or arrests, and there is no evidence that the robber was ever arrested.
The restaurant was owned at the time by Mr. and Mrs. Harlowe Ibach, who were away on vacation at the time of the robbery. Ownership later passed to Steve Bahl. Bahl closed the restaurant on Jan. 19, 2019, after he went into retirement. Four months later, Dale and Becky Koch re-opened it, and it remains popular to this day.
A call to the Preston restaurant was made to find out if anybody there remembered the theft. No one did.