Ox Yoke Inn celebrating 70 years in business

by Tim Kenyon

IOWA COUNTY – A historic atmosphere with home-style service and a personalized family touch is the everyday special at the Ox Yoke Inn.

“Our continued success just comes from our attention to quality and detail,” owner Bill Leichsenring Jr. said last week.

The Amana restaurant is practically part of his genes as his father was born in 1908 in what later became the main dining room, Mr. Leichsenring said.

His parents established the eatery in 1940. As it celebrates its 70th anniversary, tradition continues to be important in the décor and menu items.  
The heart of the menu ties to when his mother, Lina, worked in the Amana Colonies community kitchen where workers from the farms would meet to partake in hearty meals featuring heaping bowls of salads, vegetables, potatoes, gravy and breads. Four generations of the family have now carried on that “family style” while working at the restaurant, Mr. Leichsenring said.

Since 1998, the family has also owned and operated the Ox Yoke Innterstate restaurant off Interstate 80 at the Williamsburg exit.

The family’s success is reflected in its influence with other Amana residents and businesses, said Kristie Wetjen, executive director of the Amana Colonies Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“They are absolutely a staple to the tourism economy. Everybody knows their name as they do a great job providing a quality meal and experience for people to come back for more for years and years,” Ms. Wetjen said. “On the business side, Bill Jr. is a huge leader in the community. His father was the one who got the CVB rolling and people have look at Bill Jr. for years for guidance and leadership. He is very respected.”

Staff tenure is another part of the restaurant’s rich tradition.  

“A lot of their employees have worked there for years, a couple of them for about 40 years,” she said.

The teamwork between Mr. Leichsenring and General Manager Ron Goltz is another benefit to the restaurant and the business community, too, she added.

“Having that consistency in personnel helps to provide a consistently outstanding product,” Ms. Wetjen said.

Mr. Leichsenring knows the continuity between himself and Mr. Goltz is a key advantage.

“We’ve worked together over 30 years. He does all of the purchasing, he’s hands on in monitoring the quality of what is bought,” Mr. Leichsenring said. “We do a lot of business with brokers rather than food companies because it’s more direct and gives us more quality control.”

The business also benefits from a simple concept – hearing out customers.

“Listening is vital. I like being on the floor talking to our guests,” Mr. Leichsenring said. “It pays off – touching the tables and visiting with all of our guests to find out where they are from and to get feedback firsthand.”

Customer input resulted in offering one-plate or half-portion options, he noted.

The business flows with the change of people’s use of finding information about eating venues. It recently jumped into social-media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter, he said.

Additionally, the restaurant keeps in touch with customers with a “celebration club” that has more than 1,000 members that get news and specials in a newsletter, he said.

Always the businessman, Mr. Leichsenring wants to see more patrons during the week and on non-holiday weekends.

“Holidays are always busy, but we battle a distance factor perception,” he said. One example I give is a man on the south side of Cedar Rapids called and said he had a 45-minute wait for a table. I told him we had space and he drove to us, ate and returned to Cedar Rapids quicker than he would have been served his food there.”

It doesn’t need be a big event to venture the short distance from Iowa City/Coralville and Cedar Rapids to the Ox York Inn, Mr. Leichsenring said.

“Some people have the perception that the Amanas are only a special occasion place, and unfortunately that does affect us,” he said.

Some specialty items might be featured over the next several months in honor of the restaurant’s 70th anniversary, he said.

Most are not planned yet, but it will sponsor a dessert recipe contest at the state fair where making of the rhubarb custard pie will be demonstrated, Mr. Leichsenring said.