Dorothy Zehnder of the Bavarian Inn in Frankenmuth dies at 101

She had worked in the business for 85 years, most of them spent at the 900,000-meals-a-year landmark.
Dorothy Zehnder | Photo courtesy of the Bavarian Inn Frankenmuth

Dorothy Zehnder, an elder of the family that runs the mega-volume Bavarian Inn and Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth restaurants in sleepy Frankenmuth, Mich., died Sunday at age 101.

She had worked in the restaurant industry for 85 years, 73 of them spent at the Bavarian Inn, a 1,200-seat German-themed restaurant that fed busload after busload of tourists heading elsewhere. On a typical day, thousands of chicken dinners are sold to travelers moving through to other Upper Midwest locations. The restaurant estimates that its 12 dining rooms handle about 900,000 customers per year—in a town with a population of about 5,000.

The place employs about 1,000 people.

Its annual sales are estimated to be just under $16 million, which placed it 59th on Restaurant Business’ Top 100 Independents ranked by sales.

A dinner roll’s throw away is Zehnder’s, the restaurant now run by a different branch of the family. Its menu is almost identical to that of the Bavarian Inn. The place gets so busy during the Christmas season that one employee does nothing more during an eight-hour shift than make gravy.

Its annual revenues are estimated to be $17 million, and it ranked 46th on the Top 100.

Dorothy was the matriarch of the family branch that ran the Bavarian Inn. She started the restaurant with her husband, William “Tiny” Zehnder, in 1950. He died in 2006 after 65 years of marriage to Dorothy.

The Bavarian Inn was meant to complement Zehnder’s, which had opened 21 years earlier. The newcomer was more heavily themed than Zehnder’s, with the place sporting the timbered exteriors that exemplify Bavarian design. Staff members wore uniforms patterned after the traditional garb of south Germany.

Dorothy was the hostess and face of the establishment, but she was also involved in such back-of-house activities as menu and recipe development, as well as staff training.

She was also active in local tourism and business promotion.

The restaurant will continue to be run by the Zehnder family. Dorothy and Tiny Zehnder left behind 10 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.

“Our family will continue to uphold the spirit of Dorothy and her legacy to this community,” the clan said in a prepared statement.

It stated, “We mourn the passing of our beloved mother, grandmother, and family matriarch. We extend our thanks for the support from the Frankenmuth community and ask that you help us remember Dorothy for the amazing woman she was and who will remain in our hearts.”

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