‘Family is everything’ for the Bavarian Inn, a family-owned business located in Frankenmuth, Michigan.
One of America’s oldest restaurants succeeds by a family creed!
Nestled within a backdrop of authentic German architecture, Frankenmuth’s Bavarian Inn is a fourth generation family business that owes its success to “family.”
As a result, this Michigan landmark is celebrating its 125th anniversary of continuous operation this year, and has become one of the oldest and largest eateries in the country.
“Family is everything,” was a favorite saying of restaurant founder William “Tiny” Zehnder Jr. He used the phrase to describe his devotion to the mid-Michigan town he helped develop, his faith and the family he loved and worked with his entire life.
His teachings have been compiled into a moral code -- a creed that directs the family’s operations that also include the Castle Shops, Frankenmuth Cheese Haus, Covered Bridge & Leather Gift Shop, Frankenmuth River Place Shops, and the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn Lodge. The creed itself is based on the family’s shared values and vision, and a commitment to cherish and respect each other in work, worship and play.
“Our creed contains the rules, regulations and philosophies of the family, and what we expect of future generations,” said current president and third-generation owner Bill Zehnder. “One rule requires that everyone work outside the family business to gain other experiences. Succession planning here is critical; our creed defines the proper development and leadership training. We must manage the skills and talents of every family member to help them achieve success within the corporate structure.”
For decades, the principles of unity, perseverance and hard work have carried the Tiny and Dorothy Zehnder family. Through it all, generational continuity and cohesiveness have not wavered.
The restaurant’s commitment to tradition, as well as the expansion of new services and modern menu items, is spearheaded by its 10-member management team: family matriarch Dorothy Zehnder; third generation owners -- Bill Zehnder and his wife Karen, and Judy Zehnder Keller and her husband Don Keller; and five fourth generation members -- Amy, Michael, Katie, William and Martha.
Judy Zehnder Keller, president of Bavarian Inn Lodge, believes the business’ longevity is an evolving blend of tradition, continuity, adaptation and growth.
“Work is an extension of our family bond,” said Judy Zehnder Keller. “I’d like to think my brother Bill and I have been blessed with Dorothy and Tiny’s best qualities. We try to emulate the strengths of our exceptional parents and pass those traits along to our children. In that way, our creed will live forever.”
Service, hard work and a love of family is in the DNA of the Zehnder family. Even on their days off, you’ll find siblings, cousins and grandchildren cooking together and sharing a meal. Every Monday, Dorothy can be found baking with grandchildren eager to learn the business.
“We have a big responsibility to carry this business into perpetuity,” said Amy Zehnder Grossi. “It’s a challenge and a responsibility we don’t take lightly. We have to make decisions for the long term that will benefit future generations.”
“Our family’s secret ingredient is the work ethic Tiny and Dorothy instilled in their children and us, the grandchildren,” said Michael Keller Zehnder. “That is our recipe for success.”
“Bavarian Inn isn’t just a business, it’s a family,” said William Zehnder Keller. “Our motto is ‘always creating enjoyable experiences’ and we try to do that at all times.”
“I believe we have adapted to what the consumers are asking for, making Frankenmuth an even better place to visit,” said Katie Zehnder. “The future is very exciting to me.”
At age 91, Dorothy Zehnder continues working daily at the restaurant and participates in strategic business development. She has received numerous awards during her 75 years in business. When it comes to promoting her home state, its people, businesses and the tourism industry, Dorothy Zehnder stands second to none. Her uncompromising mettle and business acumen has made her a legendary civic leader, educator, author and mentor.
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