Frankenmuth — One of the first things Dorothy Zehnder does when she comes into work in the morning is check to see how many customers are expected to dine at her Bavarian Inn restaurant that day.
It’s the nearly 100-year-old restaurateur’s connection with people that make her such a venerable figure not only in the industry that she’s been a part of since she was 16 years old, but statewide as a name and personality that is synonymous with Frankenmuth, fried chicken dinners and German-American homestyle cooking.
Zehnder, a great-grandmother of 21 who will celebrate her milestone birthday Dec. 1, inspects the food almost daily at the restaurant, assuring the quality of salads, chicken and pies are all up to par. She can recite the recipe for the industrial-sized amounts of dressing made each day, starting with 40 pounds of bread. She knows the farm where Bavarian Inn gets its roasted squash each year and can tell you that this year’s crop didn’t yield as much as last year; they’ll be out by Christmas.
Amy Zehnder Grossi, one of Zehnder’s 10 grandchildren, said she’s amazed by both her grandmother’s work ethic and the way she can remember the thousands of employees and guests at Bavarian Inn, one of the state’s top two independent restaurants. According to Restaurant Business Online, the eatery generates around $17 million in sales and serves about 900,000 people each year.
“She just walks into the dining room and you would think that you would have known her all your life and she’s known you all her life. and she just makes you feel very welcome,” said Grossi, who is the general manager of Bavarian Inn Restaurant. “I’m always amazed at her memory, and at 100 years old, not very many people can do that. She just lights up a room when she goes in.”
A customer for around 50 years and lifelong Frankenmuth resident, Rollie Weiss can attest to that.
“She has always had a smile and a kind word for people. I’ve never heard her say anything derogatory in all the years I’ve known her. If she knows we’re there, she always makes a point to say hello to us,” said Weiss. He dines at Bavarian Inn about once a month with his wife and their grandson and enjoys the chicken and the kasseler rippchen (smoked pork loin).
“She is super interested in the quality of the product that is served to the patrons,” Weiss said. His son, Anthony, worked in the kitchen with Zehnder years ago and her work ethic and honest nature inspired him to become a chef; he’s now an executive chef at a private club in North Carolina.
Dorothy Zehnder is all smiles and sparkling eyes as she reflected recently on her career.
“The restaurant business is fun,” she said. “It’s not all gloom, and it’s hard work, but you have to have fun with your work, and there’s always something new coming in the restaurant business. You have to be able to go with a challenge.”
Zehnder has seen some challenges, especially in the past two years. She said she’s never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic. Bavarian Inn Lodge, restaurant and surrounding shops depend on visitors, especially around the holidays. The restaurant had to shift to ramp up carryout options, but Zehnder said “we got through it pretty well.”
“The last year was a really big change. I guess you just took it day by day, you just didn’t think that far ahead — are we going to be in business tomorrow? We had to change a lot when we couldn’t serve,” she said.
From waitress to cookbook author
Since Zehnder started working here when she was 16, she has one of the longest-running restaurant careers of anyone currently working in the industry in Michigan. She started waitressing at the restaurant in the 1930s when it was called Fischer’s.
There, she met and married William “Tiny” Zehnder, whose family ran the restaurant across the street — Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, the other one of Michigan’s top two restaurants and also known for fried chicken dinners. Dorothy became the kitchen manager of Fischer’s after the Zehnders bought it. She and her husband saw through its name change to Bavarian Inn in the 1950s and many expansions in both the business and their family in the decades that followed.
Today, the Bavarian Inn brand is a restaurant, hotel and store. The hotel has banquet facilities, water slides and a gaming area. Zehnder is still hands-on with the restaurant and works alongside many of her family members.
“We have the finest chicken in Michigan,” she said, adding that poultry has been served in this area of Frankenmuth as long as she can remember, and it was made famous, in part, because the lumbermen and salesmen would come through town and spread the word elsewhere, making the city’s fried chicken famous.
She said a lot of the menu hasn’t changed much over the years. They used instant mashed potatoes for a bit when they first became available but switched back to the real thing. They don’t make noodles in-house anymore because it’s more work than they can handle. Instead, they employ a Detroit company to make them using their exact recipe.
“We use more eggs in our noodles than what the customers use, and that keeps them in shape better and it’s a good product,” she said. “We serve it with a little brown butter and cracker crumbs, and they’re good.”
Zehnder said a few years ago her son, Bill Zehnder, was the one who encouraged her to write a cookbook. After brushing him off twice about it, she finally relented and gathered her recipes (many from her own mother) for traditional German and American meat dishes, soups, salads, jams, pies and…
Read More: How Dorothy Zehnder, now turning 100, became the face of Frankenmuth