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Bavarian Inn Marks 125 Years of Service, Memories, and Chicken

The Bavarian Inn, Michigan’s iconic Bavarian-themed restaurant in Frankenmuth, joins a short list of eateries by marking its 125th anniversary of continuous operation this year. What started in 1888 as a boarding house for Michigan’s first travelers is celebrating 125 years of serving delicious meals, including its world-famous chicken dinners.

“With the help of God, the community and our team members, we’ve created cherished memories for millions of guests,” Dorothy Zehnder, the 91-year-old family matriarch and co-founder of the Bavarian Inn, said. “We are a family motivated by hospitality and service to others, and our work continues to be a blessing for us each day.”

Service, hard work, and a love of family are three ingredients responsible for the Zehnder family’s success. Even on their days off, you’ll find brothers, cousins and grandchildren cooking together and sharing a meal. Every Monday, Dorothy can be found in her kitchen at home baking with grandchildren eager to learn the business.

The Bavarian Inn, which began life as the Union House, is now in its seventh generation of management. German immigrant Theodore Fischer built the Union House and originated the now famous “all-you-can-eat” chicken dinners. It later became Fischer’s Hotel and was purchased by the Zehnder family in February 1950; he named son William “Tiny” and wife Dorothy as managers.

Tiny and Dorothy set out to put Frankenmuth on the map, and along with brother Eddie, forever changed the face of mid-Michigan.

Rather than close the restaurant’s doors during the 1957 recession, Tiny boldly chose to expand. He spearheaded the transformation of Frankenmuth into Michigan’s “Little Bavaria” and changed the restaurant’s name and architecture to reflect its German heritage. As the remodeled and renamed “Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn” the restaurant became an immediate tourist attraction that spawned other family businesses including gift and food shops and later, the Bavarian Inn Lodge. 

However, Bill Zehnder, third-generation owner and current restaurant president, attributes the success of Bavarian Inn to something even more important: his family.

“My father often said, ‘Family is everything.’ We continue to live by that philosophy,” Zehnder said. We have a shared history and a shared moral code. We grew up together, worshiped, worked, and played together. We truly cherish and respect each other. In business, we adhere to a creed based on our shared values and vision. Work is an extension of our family bond.”

Today, the restaurant seats 1,200 guests in 12 dining rooms and serves more than 600,000 meals annually. There are currently five fourth-generation Zehnders in various areas of management -- Amy, Michael, Katie, William and Martha. The family has even branched into new businesses, including the Castle Shops, Frankenmuth Cheese Haus, the Covered Bridge & Leather Gift Shop, and Frankenmuth River Place Shops, an outdoor mall modeled after a quaint Bavarian village. 

The Bavarian Inn Lodge, built in 1986, completed a $3 million renovation in late 2012 featuring two indoor water slides and updates to its 35,000 square-foot family entertainment venue. It also has the honor of being the highest ranked family resort in the state according to the online travel site TripAdvisor. The seven-acre facility offers 360 rooms and has been host to President George H. W. Bush and all the Michigan governors dating back to G. Mennen Williams. 

Michael Keller Zehnder, Lodge General Manager and fourth generation owner, explains their success.

“The secret ingredient is the work ethic Tiny and Dorothy instilled in their children and us, the grandchildren,” Keller Zehnder said. “Add to that our thousands of dedicated team members -- many of whom have been with us through multiple generations -- and our guests, especially those who came to Bavarian Inn as children and who are now bringing their grandchildren. That is our recipe for success.”