Building a Legacy with Dorothy Zehnder, Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn
Dorothy Zehnder was part of building the Bavarian Inn empire in Frankenmuth. In this episode, we talk about those key decisions that transformed the Fisher Hotel into the world known Bavarian Inn. We also discuss her influences, working with family and building a lasting legacy.
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Hello everyone. Welcome to the call of leadership podcast. Today I have the honor and the privilege of interviewing somebody who really doesn’t need an introduction. When I was telling people that I was going to interview her, everybody knew instantly who she was. She’s kind of like everybody’s grandmother today. I am honored to welcome to the show Dorothy Zehnder from the Bavarian Inn Zehnder family. How are you Dorothy?
Dorothy Zehnder (00:26):
I’m doing very well, thank you.
Great. So what I would like to do is, because you have seen and experienced a lot, so what I would like to do is take a little bit of track, go back in time, and kind of ask you some questions about some really key pivotal moments in your family and the community’s history. So the first question that I would like to ask is the Fisher hotel existed and you worked there, and then in 1950 tiny and yourself decided to buy the Fisher hotel. What? What made you, because the restaurant business is tough. What made, what made you and Tony think that you could be successful at running a restaurant?
Dorothy Zehnder (01:14):
Well, we had a background of restaurant tears. We were, uh, I was a waitress here at fishers. I worked for, uh, the Liddy Fisher family. And then when, uh, their son was of age to take over, then I worked for Elmer Fisher and his wife, Marcella. So I worked for them and I always liked the restaurant business. So when, uh, the restaurant was, um, I’ll have to go back a little Y, Y we’d get actually buy this in, uh, 49, we had a bad snow storm and the Fisher family had on their menu as Dick. The Zehnder family across the street had the same thing on their menu. They had duck chicken, goose and Turkey, and the bad snow storm came overnight blocked all in the boroughs. Nobody could get into Frankenmuth. Well, we had all, they had food here and what are you going to do with it?
Dorothy Zehnder (02:21):
Nobody came to town for Thanksgiving. So Elmer Fisher decided he did not really like the restaurant business as well, but he took it over from his family because they were of age to get out to get out of it. And then he said, well, this is it. He’s going to try and sell the place. So my husband, uh, collected garbage. Uh, he had a garbage road and he collected garbage here at fishers ed Zanders and also at the Fisher hotel, which was up the block here, just a minute. And then, um, so Elmer Fisher said to my husband when he was here one morning, are you folks interested in buying this place? I’m ready to sell. And of course, that was a shock to my husband because fishers were more, uh, well Zehnder started meagerly and fishers were already established. Ren Zehnder started their restaurant across the street. So it was a shock to the Zehnder family.
Dorothy Zehnder (03:37):
So this went on for about six months, and the senders didn’t want to buy it. Well, they didn’t have no money. And Mr. Fisher wandered cash. He did not want a loan or anything to do with it. He said, when I’m out of it, I’m out of it. I don’t want no part of it. So this went on for about six months, you know, kind of going back and forth. And, uh, the Zehnder family didn’t think they could buy it because like I said, there was no money. So then one day, uh, Elmer Fisher again approach tiny, and he said, uh, youth people, if you don’t wanna buy it, you have to tell me I’m going to put it on the market. Well then the Zehnder family got a little nervous about that because they were just starting. And if he would put this on the market, somebody would come in, buy it, and then ruin the chicken dinner business.
Dorothy Zehnder (04:44):
So they started to kind of look around to get some money. And of course, the restaurant business is not, uh, uh, people don’t like to loan you money because you can, you can make it or you can break it. Right? So then, uh, well we, they couldn’t get the money for this and they couldn’t get enough money and he didn’t want a down payment. He said, when I’m outta here, I’m outta here. So they all thought, well, if everybody would put in empty their piggy banks, maybe we can’t get enough money together. And there were six boys or five boys, I forgot, uh, let’s say six boys and two girls. And the father was still living right. The mother had passed away and so everybody had a chip in so they could borrow then enough money to pay for it. And so, um, first when I said to my husband, let’s buy it, and he said, buy it. We haven’t got no money. How are we going to buy this place? Well, I loved the restaurant business and he, uh, he wanted to buy it, but he did not want to buy it. He was a farmer. He bought, he worked on the farm and he loved farming. I did not like farming. So I did, I wanted to kind of go in the restaurant business again. And so it went on for about six months before they finally had enough money to borrow and then to, uh,
sign the paperwork and transfer it over to your family. Yes. Excellent. So in 1950 then you, you finished buying the Fisher hotel and you ran it for a number of years now the economy and everything’s very sick lick. And I know that 1956 and 1957 were a little bit rough. Yes. Tell us a little bit about what it was like to go through those tough times.
Dorothy Zehnder (06:51):
Well, I felt kind of bad because I was instrumental in buying it, but I had no money. I mean I was just, well, we were just, I think we were married a couple of years. No, we already had children. So I did feel bad. And at one time it was, we thought we’d have to close up fishers. We wouldn’t close Anders. I was the mother, the mother business so well. So my husband said, well, I guess I’ll have to go back to farming. And I did not like to hear that news because like I said, I didn’t care for farming. So we struggled and we couldn’t. Um, we couldn’t do any improvements because with the money we borrowed, they wouldn’t allow us to do any improvements for so many. I guess it was 10 years. Wow. And, um, so it was rough. There were many sleepless nights that, um, I thought this is it.
Dorothy Zehnder (07:59):
So we couldn’t hire much help because like I said, there was no money. So we worked very long hours and we worked hard. Those years were hard, but in the end it did pay off. We did a, we did finally after we were, uh, after that, those two years. And I, I still, when I think back that we took the chance in 50 age to put on a new edition, then we could borrow money and to put on a new edition and call it Bavaria. And you know, if somebody would ask me today, would you do it again? I think I would say no because, but you know, you were young. I was 30 and my husband 32, and we were kind of eager and he took the chance. He took a chance. So with him taking the chance, I guess I was a helper and we made it through those rough years.
Cause I know that risk is a big part of being an entrepreneur because you, you are really betting on a better future. You are so in, it just wasn’t the fact that you guys, your, your family decided to expand the restaurant. You guys went with a Bavarian theme, which means you had to renovate the exterior and interior. What, what was, what was that conversation like? What made, what was the precedent to say, you know what, let’s just redo this whole thing in Bavaria style.
Dorothy Zehnder (09:45):
Uh, his family, we were one corporation when we bought it. We were one corporation. Uh, the family was not enthused about putting on these additions and there were five brothers and two sisters and he said China was one of the brothers. And he said, we’ll work hard. We’ll make it do it, we’ll make it go. And of course we did. And a man, of course, he had a meet with, uh, architects and um, get someone to build this place. He met Brett in one of the restaurant magazines. There was a German architect and he contacted him. He was out of Chicago and he contacted him. And, you know, give them the spiel about the building and everything else. And he said, at that time, we were not thinking of changing the decor or changing it, and he said, this architect says, I will design a building for you, but I will only design it in Bavarian style.
Dorothy Zehnder (10:53):
Well, that was a shock because we didn’t know anything, you know, about a barrier. We sure our forefathers came from Germany, but that was kind of the extent of it. So, uh, he contacted him and the family went to Chicago to interview this, um, uh, this architect and um, well they thought, well, give it a chance. So we did. And that was then the beginning of, uh, of Liza Barry and night. And it was always so surprising. This architect never came to Frankenmuth, never to even check, check out what he did. And it was beautiful. It was a beautiful building, but he never came to see it. Wow. That’s interesting. Yes. That, that always shocked us that he never, you know, when you do something, when I make a dinner and the dinner good and it looks good, then I’m proud of that and I want people to enjoy it. And you would have thought that he really wanted to see this building? Sure. Never came. Hmm. Interesting. And he died then after his death. Why? Yeah, we’d have just lost track of him.
Well that’s a real shame. So when you got the restaurant, you were dividing up responsibilities? Yes. And from what I read online, tiny asked you if you wanted the back of the house or the front of the house. And you said the back.
Dorothy Zehnder (12:28):
Well the kitchen, it was a, I did work the front of the house and then on weekends I would work weekends, I worked the front of the house. Weekends I would work the back of the house and then he didn’t like the idea that people would ask him questions about food and he didn’t know how to make it or he didn’t know what was in it. So finally he said, you know, we have to make a different arrangement. You either, what would you like the front of the house, would you like the bar? Would you like to take care of the, uh, the waitresses, which are like the dining room or would you like the office or would you like the back of the house? Well, it didn’t take me long to make up my mind because all my life I like cooking and all my life I cook. So I said I will take the back of the house and that settled. So I was in charge in the back of the house and he wasn’t charged in the front of the house. He did all the planning. And this building was, was his baby. He built this, he built this meat, right? Yes.
Who would you say is your greatest influence on your cooking or your love of cooking? My mother. Your mother? Uh, I looked her up at, is it pronounced Hedwig Hedwig, correct. In English. It was heady. Oh, and her sisters, they all called her heady. She was always heading and to us, well, you know, children, you say mom and she would always bring you into the kitchen. You were always cooking, helping out.
Dorothy Zehnder (14:13):
I lived on a farm and of course I did. I told you I didn’t like farming and um, mother would help my father on the farm and she excused me. I get emotional. She was wonderful person.
Dorothy Zehnder (14:42):
So mother would help on the farm and I, I had an older sister and she would do the cooking and I would help on the farm. We would whole and we would have to milk cows and feed chickens and all this. And then when my sister got married, I got her job in the house. Oh wow. So I thought that was kind of special so I could do the cooking and then mom would still work on the farm with my father. And then, um, I would also help on the farm, but I could come in when we were hoeing or something. I could come in at Lavaca and make a lunch. So that was kind of a perks for you. You got an hour often you could do the cooking. And my brother had a say and help mom so that that was special. So I would do the cooking and for lunch we’d eat lunch and we quit do the dishes and out on the farm we would go again.
Dorothy Zehnder (15:48):
And you know, this was not in the winter, but it was in the summer when, um, you would do hoeing and planting and things like that. My brother was 10 years younger and I was, so he wasn’t much help at that time. So speaking of cooking, I’ve got my producer Miranda Urbanczyk in the studio with us today and actually she has a question that she’d like to ask you. Okay.
Why did you decide to specialize in family style chicken dinners?
Well, the family style chicken dinner already was in existence before the Zander family bought the Zehnder restaurant. The Fisher family work was here before we were. So the chicken dinner was already well advanced. Of course there were lumbermen lumberman were here and they would eat, they would, we would call it a boarder’s dinner. And then of course the word got out and people from the city would common enjoy a chicken dinner.
Dorothy Zehnder (16:54):
And so that’s how kind of and the three restaurants in a small town, that was a lot. It was a lot. But that’s how it actually came into existence. And then we use, at that time we would use heavy hands. Our, our chickens were five and six pound hints and you had a boil them and you boil everyone, you had a test. It’s not like now you put 90 in a VAP and you have a hoist center lowers that and you don’t have to handle each one at that time. You had to handle each chicken to check if it was done or not. Sometimes they were older chickens and they were not the best. But then, um, my husband, I have to give him credit for that. He started then with uh, uh, a younger chicken. So our chickens now are between two and a half to three pounds.
Dorothy Zehnder (17:56):
And, and that was, that was a big turnover when we, uh, decided to go with, uh, younger chickens. That again, took a lot of courage because, uh, we didn’t know if the people were going to accept this and it maybe took a couple of years to we, uh, then you had to buy different equipment and you had a buy everything yet. It was just something you had to really work with and that, that was tiny. Uh, he did that. He worked everything out. And then the Zehnder family at that time also, they didn’t change over this. See, his brothers were still over there. Um, we’re running the place across the street, so he had two brothers over there and he was here. So it was, um, it was a challenge for us. Was not easy.
Dorothy Zehnder (19:55):
Kind of piggybacking on what you were talking before, the restaurant business is not easy. No, it’s challenging. Uh, and when we, when we first started here, there were two restaurants. No, there were three, actually it was fishers, Zanders and Henry Fisher. Now there’s close to 35, 40 restaurants here in town. They’re short order restaurants, but it’s competition. It’s competition. A lot of competition. I bet. I bet. Now since your family made that decision to go with the Bavaria style, you’re, I don’t know what other words to describe it. Besides empire has grown. I mean, it happens. You’ve got the, the, the leather shop and the cheese shop and you’ve got the, the lodge across the river. Did you, did you ever think like going back to 1950
when you first bought the place, did you ever think that one day your family empire was going to be so big?
Dorothy Zehnder (20:53):
Never. Never. You know, when you’re young, you know, we were in our thirties and we were used to hard work. You don’t think into the future that that far I will solo. My husband always had I thinking into the future. He was a, an entrepreneur for the future and he always that that was a, you have to do this for the town. He did many projects for the town that people never knew that he would. And then once I said tiny, you can give all that money away. We haven’t got it. We need it. Know, well, he says you gotta build up the town. So he was very instrumental that the town when Bavaria, and he did,
cause I read, uh, in, in my research for this interview, I, I read more than one article that talked about how like when a new business would come into town, he would be one of the ones that would be champion, making sure that they, they decorated their building in the Bavarian style to carry through that to really transform Frankenmuth into the little Bavarian. Michigan’s Little Bavaria.
Dorothy Zehnder (22:04):
Yes he did. He did. And they used to call him Mr. Frankenmuth.
Now that I didn’t come across to my research, yes. But that’s okay. So for Mr. Franklin, and I have to ask this question because this was something that I was thinking back in my childhood about something that the Zehnders did to impact me. And I remember the day when my mother came into my bedroom and said, we’re going over to Frankenmuth. So we came over here and we drove across the wooden bridge for the first time. Yes. It opened in 1980 the bridge did. And I remember our first time going across, I was so scared cause my, you know, I was thinking of a scared yeah I was cause there was a wooden bridge, you know, I was like, Oh my goodness, you know, we’re going to fall through dah dah dah dah. But I remember we waited probably maybe 20 or 25 minutes drive across the bridge because everybody was doing it. The question that I have for you is, as I know the Genesis of this idea came years before it actually opened. But you know, when tiny walked up to you and said, you know, my brother and I are thinking about opening a wooden bridge and we want a handmade across the Cass River. What did you, what did you think of that idea?
Dorothy Zehnder (23:14):
He didn’t ask me. No, at that time it was the family. I was actually, uh, they, they ran both places. You know, it was a family that ran the business. I just worked at the time. But he, no, he didn’t ask me. He was a, in fact, Eddie was the manager at genders and tiny did all the groundwork. And then of course, being that we still were a company, uh, he got involved then too, but no, he didn’t ask me. There were many, uh, decisions he made. Uh, I came after then I would find it out, but it didn’t bother me. It really didn’t bother me that I, I wasn’t involved in all of that because it was a family. It was a after our children were, when did we, uh, separate in, I don’t even remember what year, when our children then came into the business.
Dorothy Zehnder (24:19):
And, um, then we, uh, let’s see, how did that work? Again, we had to separate because we were going to build the lodge and we couldn’t get finances with something being that we were one corporation. So then the Zanders and the Bavarian in split Eddie and his children then see then now the brothers were all getting older. They were not in the business anymore. It was not a one brother here and one brother there. And then, uh, of course our children were about 10 years older than what Eddie’s children were. So we were now starting to build our future with the children. And Judy went to Michigan state and she took [inaudible], uh, as a class tourism. And then she wanted to build a hotel. And we had the banker here in town, uh, said you’ll never make it. You cannot put a hotel in here.
Dorothy Zehnder (25:31):
This town is too small. And he would not give us any money from the Frankenmuth bank cause he didn’t think we would make it. Now this was already the second generation that had no money. So you can tell we were struggling all our life to make things meet, to meet things. So then we built, she built a hotel. Um, uh, she graduated from college and then I don’t think she was married. No, she wasn’t. Uh, then she started gathering, uh, things together to build this hotel and got architects and things and without build the hotel and it did well. And the banker at that time, I was surprised. He was really surprised that, uh, we did so well. So one thing I’ve learned is you never tell an entrepreneur no has, somehow they find a way. Yeah. And somehow Judy found a way to make the lodge happen.
Dorothy Zehnder (26:38):
So then she, she built the hotel and then after that were we’d build many things. Uh, we had, uh, uh, a 90 set place in Bridgeport, uh, which is now the, uh, Love’s gas station. I don’t know if you’ve driven there. We had a gas station and we sold chicken dinners there and, uh, that did not go very well. You’re talking about freeway, Fritz freebie for it. Yes. Yes. It was good, but it was not, we had a close up, we had a car and that it was a, it was idle for a number of years. And then, uh, we had, we sold firecrackers in there. Whatever works. Right? He sold firecrackers, right. Think of it, you know, from chicken dinners to fire crackers. But, uh, then we sold it to this, uh, this LAFS gas station and they’re doing wonderful. So that was not the best, um, the best of business we had, but we struggled through it. And then finally we closed it up and then we’d built the Frankenmuth River Place. Right. And that, that was a struggle all those years to get that up and running. And so now it’s, uh, the, uh, third generation that’s running Frankenmuth River Place.
Speaking of which, you mentioned this before about bringing up your kids in the restaurant business and they’re working in the Bavarian in empire, your grandkids as well. What’s it, what’s it like knowing that, that your family basically bought into your vision and are working here? They’re, they’re making successful careers here. They’re growing. What you’ve done, what’s, what’s that like?
Dorothy Zehnder (28:34):
Well, they worked here. They all work here and my husband always said, you have to pay these children as soon as they worked for you, you’ve got to pay him because then they have the instinct to keep on going. And that we get a, bill was nine months old when we bought this place. And of course, uh, I was a young mother. I had, Judy was five years older and bill and she was in school. So when I didn’t have a babysitter or like they do, we didn’t have these, uh, places you could take the children. I would bring him here. He would take a nap upstairs in a one bedroom and every so often, every hour either I will check on him or bill are tiny, would check on him. He took his snap up here. Then when he was done with this nap again, I bring him down in the kitchen.
Dorothy Zehnder (29:29):
I put him on a cart and bring toys from home and he would sit on that card for hours, just play with toys. At one time I gave him a tea pot with water for a whole hour. He kept cocoa went like this. And of course they tease him about it now with the teapot kit, but it um, yeah, the, I brought the children with me. I had to bring them with me. And now your grandkids are working here as well? Yeah. Yes. At one time we had, uh, let’s see, there were two, four, five, there were five grandchildren working here in the kitchen with me. And for some reason or other, when it was time for lunch, how they manage it, they would all have to have that lunch break together in my office. That’s where they’d eat lunch and they had a good time and they loved it. It was a, and now it’s the grant, the great grandchildren that are now coming to work.
Recently you celebrated working here 70 years. Most people, I know a lot of people that, you know, when they turn 60 or 65 they are ready to retire. I’m out, I am done. But for you it was kind of like, you’re just like, all right. And you kept right on going. What is it that, what is it that inspires you to, you know, to keep coming into work? What, what drives you?
Dorothy Zehnder (30:56):
Well, I think it’s the people. It’s the people, you know, I miss people. If I, if I’m not around people and I have many friends, I would come to eat and I really want to see him. I would work late hours. If I knew John Bell was coming at eight o’clock I would stay till eight o’clock till he was here. And that I think had some influence and I like to cook and for me to cook and stay an extra hour to cook this, this item, that was no problem. That was no problem. I liked it. And you would get satisfaction out of it and a business was good and you were happy. That business was so good. You knew that it didn’t come from nothing. You had to work hard, you know, to get it where it is now. So it was, um, it was a challenge, but it was a choiceful challenge. I enjoyed it. And to this day, uh, I, I don’t have to work. I could stay home, but I like to come over here. I like to see that the food is good. I like to see they continue to check things out and that things are good. So I kind of enjoy that. And I guess it’s part of living,
no doubt. And you’re, you’re very fortunate in the fact that you get to do something that you love.
Dorothy Zehnder (32:35):
Exactly. And that I can do what I like, I can and go whenever I like. If I don’t want to come one day, I don’t have to come, but yet, um, uh, I enjoy it. Nice.
and you speed of which, cause I know you’re still very active in the kitchen and I have to ask this question, what is your sacred to vitality? You’re still very active. What is your, what is your secret?
Dorothy Zehnder (33:04):
You know, that’s a hard question. When is my secret? I really, I don’t want this business to go back. You know, I want this business to stay where it is and I, I’m kind of fussy, windy with food that it looks good and then we buy the best food. Uh, you could buy, I just use this as an example. Gordon foods have a, a very good establishment. They’re high priced. Their prices are higher than anybody, any other broker, but they got quality. I, I would then buy it from Gordon’s because I know it’s going to be good. Right. And if you got a good product to start with, you can only make it better.
The, the question that I got that I want to wrap up with is we, we, before we talked about your, your mother’s influence on your cooking, what do you think she would say if you knew, if she knew that you had literally cooked meals for millions of people over the last 50 years, what do you think she’d say?
Dorothy Zehnder (34:18):
Mom would be very proud. She would be, or she would say, why do you work so hard? That’s what she is. Because she would come over and after my father died, she would come over and stay with me. Excuse me. You wouldn’t think you’d have to cry after your mother was dead for 20 years. Your love for your mother never goes away. My mother worked very hard in her life, so for her to see me work hard, she always said, why do you work so hard? Because mother would work hard, but she would have her evenings.
Dorothy Zehnder (35:19):
I also had a sister. They worked here. She was the most wonderful baker. So with having my here for all those years, she only worked about two days a week or three days a week. It was for me. That’s okay. Now mom would say, why are you crying? Sounds like she’d be very proud. She would be wonderful. With that, I’m going to go ahead and wrap up this interview. Dorothy, I can’t tell you what a treat. What a pleasure. This is banned. Just taken a little bit of your time cause I know you’re extremely busy, so thank you for, for speaking with us today. I really do appreciate it. It’s no problem. All right. Thank you.
About The Host
About The Host
Cliff is the host of “The Call of Leadership” podcast. He has published over 500 short stories over Facebook, Medium and LinkedIn. He is a passionate lifelong learner, marketer and philanthropist. He currently lives in Reese, Michigan with his fiancé Sherry and her two children.