Operations

They come for the kitsch. They stay for the chicken dinner

Two restaurants in tiny Frankenmuth, Mich., are among the top-performing independent restaurants in the country. It's all about family, nostalgia and abundance.
Chicken dinner photo courtesy of Zehnder's

In rural Michigan, somewhere between Flint and Saginaw, there is a town that people describe as driving into a Hallmark card.

Frankenmuth, Mich., known as Michigan’s Little Bavaria, is a town of only about 5,000 with architecture that resembles an Old World Alpine village. Here, a Glockenspiel Tower rings on the hour, and periodically, wooden figurines pop out to tell the story of the Pied Piper.

In Frankenmuth, it’s Christmas all year, thanks what is billed as the world’s largest Christmas store. But the town is also home to vast indoor waterparks, and it seems there’s always a festival happening, from the wiener dog races and hot air balloon celebrations of summer, to the snow sculpture competitions in winter.

Frankenmuth has plenty to keep people coming. It’s an unapologetic tourist destination, and more than 3.5 million people visited last year—more than the Statue of Liberty or Yellowstone National Park.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that Frankenmuth is also home to two of the highest-volume independent restaurants in the country. The two collectively served about 1.8 million people in 2022.

In fact, it would seem to violate some unwritten law to visit Frankenmuth without sitting down to an abundance of food at either Zehnder’s or the Bavarian Inn.

(Check out RB's Top 100 Independents ranking here.)

Competing cousins

These two restaurants are separate operations but owned by members of the Zehnder family—directly across the street from each other.

What makes them unique on the Top 100 list is their sheer size. Both are more than 1,000-seat venues.

First, there’s Zehnder’s, which calls itself “America’s largest family restaurant.”

Zehnder’s has 1,600 seats and served an estimated 970,156 guests in 2022, resulting in sales of more than $19.3 million, despite an average check of only $19.85 per person.

Designed to resemble Mount Vernon—one of the elders was a fan of George Washington—Zehnder’s is known for its “all-you-care-to-eat” fried chicken dinners, served family-style at a set price by servers wearing Early American costumes.

Across the street, there’s the more German-themed Bavarian Inn, where a variation of the same chicken dinners is also served, though perhaps with the addition of a bit of schnitzel, spaetzle or sauerbraten. With 12 dining rooms, the Bavarian Inn is a smaller (relatively) restaurant with only 1,200 seats.

Here, servers wearing traditional German dirndls and lederhosen served an estimated 790,392 guests in 2022, resulting in sales of $15.7 million, despite the slightly higher average check of $23.07.

More than a century of tradition

To understand what makes these restaurants such a part of the tapestry of Frankenmuth, and so familiar to generations of Michiganders, requires a bit of history.

It all began in 1856, when the Exchange Hotel opened, just 11 years after the founding of Frankenmuth, a town built by German missionaries who came to convert the region’s indigenous people. The hotel went through various iterations and owners, burned down and was rebuilt. In 1928, it was bought by William and Emilie Zehnder, the grandparents of current CEO Al Zehnder.

William was the fan of George Washington who remodeled the Exchange Hotel in the style of Mount Vernon and renamed it Zehnder’s. The restaurant opened in 1929. On the first day, the restaurant served 312 guests, charging $1 each.

It was, however, a terrible time to open a restaurant with the country sinking into an economic Depression and Prohibition banning the sale of alcohol. For the Germans of Frankenmuth, beer was “just another form of food,” said Al, who loves telling the restaurant’s history.

In the latter days of Prohibition, Zehnder’s was raided and the bar was smashed. Al’s grandfather was fined the then-mind-boggling sum of $5,000. “Even Al Capone didn’t get that large a fine,” said Al.

But the family carried on, even as Al’s father (Eddie Zehnder) and uncles left to serve in World War II. But they returned to take over the restaurant as the second generation in 1947, taking Zehnder’s into an era of post-war prosperity, as the auto industry in Michigan grew and Americans hit the roads.

In the 1950s, the Zehnder family had the opportunity to buy the Fischer’s Hotel across the street, which had long been a competitor. Fischer’s was known for its family-style chicken dinners, an idea that Zehnder’s had already stolen and made their own.

Eddie’s brother William Zehnder Jr., who was known as Tiny, had the idea of expanding Fischer’s with Bavarian-style architecture—a nod to their German heritage—and in 1959 it reopened as the Bavarian Inn.

By 1965, brothers Eddie and Tiny bought out their siblings to run the restaurants, initially as two divisions under one holding company.

“It was a match made in business heaven,” said Al of his father and uncle working together. “They enjoyed each other’s company and traveled together. They were competitive in that they both wanted to grow their businesses and they were very community-oriented.”

The brothers also taught their children, the next generation to take over the businesses, “the value of family and never arguing over a dollar,” he added.

By the early 1980s, the family decided to split the businesses—for tax purposes more than anything else, Al said.

Eddie took Zehnder’s and Tiny took the Bavarian Inn. In fact, Tiny’s wife Dorothy (who had been a waitress at Fischer’s) died earlier this year at age 101. She worked in the kitchen at the Bavarian Inn until she was 100 years old, said Amy Grossi, her granddaughter and now president of the restaurant.

“She had an amazing life,” said Grossi, whose father Bill Zehnder chairs the Bavarian Inn’s parent company. “We miss her terribly.”

More than a restaurant

As the two restaurants grew, so did the family’s other businesses.

Zehnder’s now includes the Splash Village waterpark and hotel, a golf course called The Fortress, and the company recently acquired a historic mill on the banks of the Cass River, just south of Zehnder’s, which they are converting into a boutique hotel.

The Bavarian Inn, meanwhile, grew to include a more than 300-room Lodge—charmingly reached by a covered bridge across the river. That hotel also has a waterpark, and the company broke ground last year on an $80 million expansion adding what amounts to three football-field sized more family fun, to create what will be the state’s largest indoor waterpark when it opens next year.

If there is tension between the competing operations, the family keeps it well hidden.

“Yes, we’re separate companies and we are competitors, kinda, but I really feel that we are friendly competitors,” Grossi said. “I want them to be successful. They want us to be successful. It’s a unique situation.”

She said both companies are focused on drawing visitors to Frankenmuth, which, like so many tourist towns, took a hit during the pandemic.

Business, however, came roaring back for both Zehnder’s and the Bavarian Inn in 2022. The Bavarian Inn’s sales were up by nearly $2.5 million last year, compared with 2021, and Zehnder’s was also up more than $2 million.

“We saw an increase in motorcoach groups visiting, as well as meetings and conventions that came back,” said Grossi.

The sales increase can also be credited in part to higher menu prices, to help offset commodity costs, she added, and the fact that the giant restaurant was able to adequately staff up post-Covid.

Al Zehnder agreed that tourism floodgates opened in 2021, when people were hungry to get out, especially once Canadians were let back into the U.S.

Though Zehnder’s was only open 11 months in 2021, sales volumes broke company records, only to be topped again in 2022. He expects 2023 to break records again.

During the pandemic closure, Zehnder’s kept about 100 key staffers on with full pay and benefits, he said. Once it seemed Covid restrictions would be lifted, the company accelerated hiring to get the 900 or so needed to fully reopen.

Now the restaurant has about 950 staff members as it goes into its busiest quarter, which starts with Oktoberfest and ends with New Year’s celebrations.

On Thanksgiving alone, he said, the restaurant expects to serve about 7,000 people.

That chicken dinner

A glance through Yelp reviews for either Zehnder’s or Bavarian Inn will show high marks for the nostalgic experience, with many saying it brought back memories of visiting as a child—but reviewers don’t tend to rave about the food.

“It’s not life-changing food,” wrote one reviewer on Yelp. “But it is a good wholesome meal.”

Grossi admits the chicken dinner is “not super German.”

The dinner options vary between the two restaurants, but generally, it includes noodle soup, cole slaw, pasta salad, dressing, mashed potatoes, buttered noodles, a scoop of cottage cheese and vegetable du jour, with soft serve for dessert.

At Zehnder’s, you can add jumbo fried shrimp or sliced prime rib, for example. At Bavarian Inn, guests might start with potato cheese puffs (kartoffelkäseknödel) or add an assortment of German meats.

The chicken dinner is also not traditional fried chicken.

The Bavarian Inn has a meat department where whole chickens are cut up and parboiled. Then the chicken pieces are lightly breaded and fried for only three minutes, which results in a lighter crust.

It’s a recipe that hasn’t changed much over the decades and it probably never will—though Zehnder’s recently added the option of rotisserie chicken to the menu as an alternative, and both restaurants make other seasonal changes throughout the year.

In addition, both Zehnder’s and the Bavarian Inn have added outlets offering “deconstructed” parts of the menu and takeout, with trendier offerings in the mix.

Zehnder’s sales, for example, include those from Z Chef’s Café on the lower level, offering more of a cafeteria-style format that’s quicker and more casual. Guests can just get one piece of chicken and a side, for example, without ordering the whole “all-you-care-to-eat” extravaganza.

Bavarian Inn, likewise, has Michigan on Main, an outlet that stars more local products, with dishes like a Michigan Black Bean Burger on a pretzel bun; Lake Superior white fish with tartar sauce; or a German sausage duo on a bed of blaukraut.

The expansions to come—The Mill at Zehnder’s Park and the expanded waterpark for Bavarian Inn—will also bring new food-and-beverage opportunities, the cousins said.

And the fourth generation of Zehnders are also getting involved in the two businesses, preparing to potentially take over someday.

Making a business of tradition

Tiny Zehnder, Grossi’s grandfather, had a sign on his office wall that read, “This business shall continue forever.” That sign now hangs at the Bavarian Inn.

Though the businesses are set to grow, both sides say they don’t expect much to change with the core operation of the restaurants.

These are venues that have mastered the art of large family gatherings and celebrations, whether it’s Grandma’s 80th birthday, a graduation or a baby’s baptism.

Fundamentally, tradition is part of the appeal of both Zehnder’s and the Bavarian Inn, said Al.

“Generation after generation come here,” he said. “They know what to expect.”

Check out the full ranking of the Top 100 Independent restaurants of 2023.

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