A steakhouse without steak? How Auburn City is adapting to the pandemic without cutting quality

A few years ago, the James family of Metal Technologies, Inc. and the James Foundation transformed the former Auburn City Hardware store in downtown Auburn into a sleek, industrial steakhouse set to elevate the rural community's dining scene.

They hired third-generation restaurateur Robert "Bob" Lebamoff of Fort Wayne to run Auburn City Steakhouse about two years ago. In fact, the restaurant just celebrated its two-year anniversary in April, Lebamoff notes.Bob Lebamoff

But if you order carryout from Auburn City Steakhouse today, during the COVID-19 stay home order, you won’t find its namesake steak on the menu.

That’s because adapting to pandemic conditions means more than boxing up meals for takeout, Lebamoff says. Instead, it requires high-end restaurateurs to rethink their business models, from the products they source to how they deliver a new flavor of hospitality to patrons stuck at home.

And sometimes, it requires not thinking like a restaurant at all.

“We had to start thinking about ourselves as a food service outlet,” Lebamoff explains.

It’s this distinction that has helped him pivot with the times, attracting new customers and even hiring new employees during the pandemic.

Lebamoff was one of the lucky few local restaurants to receive $135,000 in the first round of the CARES Act’s Payroll Protection Plan loans for small businesses. These funds have allowed him to keep his business alive—and even launch an innovative Auburn City Eats home delivery service to put his staff back to work.

Even so, work at Auburn City Steakhouse is anything but business as usual, Lebamoff says, starting with the menu.

Since steak doesn’t travel or reheat well, he temporarily removed it from the offerings to preserve the quality his food is known for. As such, his team has been working quickly with suppliers to create a new, limited menu focused on the items best suited for carryout trips of 15-20 minutes.

Auburn City Steakhouse has a limited menu during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While you can still get the restaurant’s signature prime rib (a recipe handed down from Lebamoff’s father’s restaurant, The Elegant Farmer), a few new favorites have been added to the mix. Lebamoff says his new best-seller is a 14 oz. center cut French boned pork chop marinated in brown sugar, which holds its temperature well.

“We’ve sold more pork chop in the last six weeks than in six months at the restaurant,” Lebamoff says. “It’s a great product, it travels well, and people want to have some normalcy in their lives as they’re shuttered in their homes.”

A 14 oz. center cut French boned pork chop marinated in brown sugar.

As an added bonus, the change of menu and closure of the restaurant’s dine-in service has lowered the average price of meals at Auburn City Steakhouse by about 30 percent to $25 per person, Lebamoff notes. These lower prices are making the restaurant more appealing to local customers who might have been reluctant to set foot inside a high-end establishment before the pandemic.

“Our base has continued to support us, and we're picking up new bases who have never thought to give us a try,” Lebamoff says. Auburn City Steakhouse is inside the historic Auburn City Hardware store in downtown Auburn.

He explains that when first-time customers are coming in for carryout, many of them are intrigued by the building’s rich history, which dates back to 1859. Lebamoff feels that the quality food and allure of the space are creating strong bonds with the community that will outlive the pandemic, encouraging locals to revisit the restaurant when limited dine-in service is allowed, starting next week under Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan to reopen the state economy.

Even so, Lebamoff recognizes that the reopening of restaurants is likely to be a slow process, and rightly so—particularly in rural, elderly communities like Auburn.

“I don’t feel like we’re going to have this on-and-off light switch that somebody will tell us it’s fine to go back into public spaces, and we’ll just go,” Lebamoff says. “I think people are going to be leery about that for a while, and I don’t want to jeopardize our older population.”

A rendering of the dining room at Auburn City Steakhouse.

As such, his team has already socially distanced the restaurant’s tables to be six-feet apart, and they aren’t planning to rely heavily on dine-in business for the rest of the year. Instead, they’re innovating in ways that are likely to extend beyond the current crisis, starting with beefing up their carryout service.

Prior to the pandemic, Auburn City Steakhouse was doing about one percent carryout business and zero percent delivery, Lebamoff estimates.

“Well, guess what?” he says. “Now, we’re 100 percent carryout and delivery. That’s new for us, and quite frankly, I’m surprised how well it’s worked.”

Carryout service has been in high demand at Auburn City Steakhouse.

Lebamoff says one game-changer for his carryout service has been Gov. Holcomb’s executive order allowing restaurants to sell alcohol for takeout. During the pandemic, Auburn City Steakhouse has been offering a 30 percent discount on bottles of wine, including their special Conservative Rebel White Blend created in partnership with Satek Winery in Fremont.

“We’ve sold more than 150 bottles of wine since the pandemic started,” Lebamoff says. Auburn City Steakhouse is offering a 30 percent discount on wines, like its special Conservative Rebel White Blend created with Satek Winery.

Another fast success was the restaurant’s Easter Sunday meal they offered for families celebrating the holiday at home. While the steakhouse isn’t usually open on Sundays, Lebamoff says he felt compelled to offer the community a $15-20 per person ham or turkey dinner to feed their families.

In a single day, they sold out, serving nearly 600 carryout meals in a matter of hours.

“We could have fed hundreds of more people if we had more food and more help,” Lebamoff says. “That gave me the confidence to launch a delivery service.”

On Tuesday, April 21, Lebamoff launched a home delivery service called Auburn City Eats, which operates like an Auburn-only version of DoorDash or Grubhub (services not currently available in the small town).

Before Lebamoff got the PPP in March, he had to lay off 32 of his 34 staff members. Now, he’s been able to rehire 22 immune-healthy staffers as delivery drivers—and even offer additional jobs to community members looking for temporary work.

“Our hope is that, as we continue to ramp up our business, we’ll be able to bring as many people on as we can,” Lebamoff says. 

Auburn City Eats allows Auburn City Steakhouse to rehire its servers as delivery drivers.

In the first three days running Auburn City Eats, his crew made 32 deliveries within a 5-10 mile radius of the restaurant, for which the service is eligible. Lebamoff says he would like to extend the delivery service beyond Auburn into the northern suburbs of Fort Wayne, but it’s all a matter of making sure the food travels well and he has enough staff to support the demand.

“I’d rather start small, and work my way up,” he says.

Each week, Auburn City Steakhouse is adding a few more items back to the menu and getting one step closer to their “new normal.” While they started off making dinner deliveries only, they’re now offering lunch deliveries and considering adding regular Sunday food service from noon-3 p.m., as well.

“We’re learning as we’re going,” Lebamoff says. “I wish there was a magic bullet or a looking glass to have all the right answers. But I’m trying to make decisions based on how I would want to be treated, and what I would want in a meal at this time.”

As a third-generation restaurateur, he has high standards for his food, but he’s proud of how quickly his staff has adapted to the crisis and how far they’ve come in a mere seven weeks.

Just last weekend, they fielded about 325 orders for takeout and delivery together, Lebamoff says.

"That shows me our community supports us, and it shows that we have something to offer them,” he adds. “I’m really proud that we're in a position to do that. Every day is a new adventure.”

Learn more 

Auburn City Steakhouse is open for takeout or delivery service Tuesday-Saturday during COVID-19, offering lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and dinner from 4-8 p.m. 

The restaurant plans to open on Tuesday, May 12, for limited, socially distant dine-in service, according to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan.

Watch the restaurant’s website and social media for details.

Auburn City Eats currently delivers to Auburn residences within a 5-10-mile radius of the Steakhouse for fees ranging from $1.99-$4.99, depending on the distance. Call 260-333-7337 to place an order, or email [email protected].
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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.