Montana Sandwich Shop Sign Returned 20 Years After Theft

Owner of the Pickle Barrel, a Bozeman, Mont., sandwich shop, Jenny O'Brien stands next to the newly recovered Pickle Barrel sign on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. The sign was stolen 20 years ago and returned Monday, Aug. 1. (Rachel Leathe/Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP)
Owner of the Pickle Barrel, a Bozeman, Mont., sandwich shop, Jenny O'Brien stands next to the newly recovered Pickle Barrel sign on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. The sign was stolen 20 years ago and returned Monday, Aug. 1. (Rachel Leathe/Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP)
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BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — Drunk people do a lot of dumb things, including on occasion stealing signs from beloved restaurants.

In 2002, the Pickle Barrel, a Bozeman sandwich shop and institution, was the victim of such behavior when its classic, barrel-shaped wooden sign that hung in front of the store was stolen in the middle of the night, not to be seen again for years.

That changed Monday morning, when Pickle Barrel owner Jenny O’Brien showed up to open up the restaurant and found a huge cardboard box outside the store.

Sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning, two “middle aged dudes who made a drunken mistake a long time ago” finally dropped off the sign they had stolen from the restaurant two decades prior.

“I was just shocked,” O’Brien told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

With the box was a letter, where the two anonymous men explained what happened all those years ago: They were walking home from the bars after closing time, singing country and 1990s rap songs when they ran into two other men (who presumably were also drunk).

The four quickly decided they should probably steal the Pickle Barrel sign, according to the letter, and carried it away into the night in what the letter calls “one of the greatest heists in the history of our town.”

The men said their original intention was to return it soon after and have a good story to tell. But time went on and eventually, they forgot about the sign.

But after 20 years, it was time for redemption.

“It has spent its last twenty years residing in the darkest, uppermost recesses of the attic above my old garage, and most recently tucked quietly in the back corner of my wife’s garden shed,” the letter reads. “My crony and I recently concluded that after all these years, it is time for the Pickle Barrel sign to finally be returned to its rightful home.”

O’Brien said she wants to put the sign back in its former spot above the shop’s door, where a smaller, square-shaped sign hangs now — with padlocks securing it to the chain.

O’Brien was working at Pickle Barrel when the sign was stolen. She started at the shop in 2000, and eventually bought the Bozeman location from the founder, Ken Olson, in 2014.

The sign had actually been stolen before the same year O’Brien started working at the shop, and was returned about six months later. But as the months and years passed after the sign was stolen again in 2002, O’Brien said they gave up hope that it would be returned.

“You kind of just reach a point where you’re like, it’s not coming back,” O’Brien said.

After O’Brien realized what was inside the package on Monday, she called former coworkers and Olson to tell them the news.

“It knocks you back to 20 years ago and you just start remembering everything that we did back then, it’s a lot of memories,” O’Brien said. “I’ve been walking around with a smile on my face all day.”

O’Brien also posted the returned sign and accompanying letter to social media. Over 500 people had shared the post by Monday evening, and dozens commented, some sharing memories of their college days when they frequented the sandwich shop.

The men explain in the letter that they are lifelong residents of the area and still live and work in the community.

“Above all, we would both like to express our deepest and most sincere apologies for committing such a grievous criminal act so many years ago,” the men wrote, explaining they want to stay anonymous “for obvious reasons.”

O’Brien said she understands why they want to remain anonymous, and hopes they recognize the story is having some positive ripple effects on social media.

O’Brien doesn’t seem to harbor much ill will to the thieves, noting that despite a 20-year absence, the sign is in decent shape.

“They took good care of it,” O’Brien said. “It looks pretty good.”