Frankenmuth restaurant matriarch ‘a kid at heart’ at 94

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Frankenmuth — Amid the 200 workers in the organized bedlam of the Bavarian Inn kitchen during the Thanksgiving season is a tiny force of nature.

Dorothy Zehnder scurries through the mammoth room, sprinkling dark greens on the cabbage salad, ensuring the steam table noodles remain moist, that the hot food goes on hot plates and the cold food on cold ones.

And woe to the maker of the mashed potatoes if they’re lumpy.

Zehnder is good at what she does. After all, she’s been doing it for 66 years.

And the 94-year-old is no mere kitchen manager. Her visage shines from a billboard just outside town.

She is the Queen of Little Bavaria, the co-founder of the restaurant, the matriarch of a family whose fried chicken helped turn Frankenmuth into a popular tourist destination.

“I like working,” she said. “I like to cook. I like people. I work side by side with my family. What could be better than that?”

It’s not unusual for Zehnder to work on Thanksgiving. She has missed only one, in 1956, when she was pregnant with the youngest of her three children.

What is unusual is for the diminutive dynamo to take a day off. She works six days a week. And there’s no place she would rather be.

So one of the things Zehnder gives thanks for today is easy — the beloved restaurant. She also appreciates her family, friends, good health and a long life.

The long life turns another page Dec. 1 as she turns 95.

“I’m blessed in so many ways,” she said. “Life has been good to me.”

Meanwhile, others are giving thanks for her, and not just for saving them the trouble of preparing a turkey today.

Besides turning the Bavarian Inn into one of the largest restaurants in the U.S., Zehnder and her late husband, Tiny, helped change the look of Frankenmuth, located 80 miles north of Detroit.

In the 1950s, they recast their building with an Alpine theme. Other businesses followed. Soon Frankenmuth was a mass of ornate balconies and overhanging eaves. Little Bavaria was born. Busloads of tourists followed.

The restaurant even has a bell tower with a Glockenspiel, where the Pied Piper of Hamelin and other wooden characters march to music and narration in English and German.

“All of that put Frankenmuth on the map,” said Gary Scharrer, a former editor of the local paper who had worked at the restaurant as a youngster. “They helped transform a sleepy farming town.”

Zehnder never planned to work this long. She just never got around to retiring.

She once tried to cut back her hours. In the 1980s, she began taking Thursdays off and leaving work at 2 p.m.

She went stir crazy. She could take only so much TV. She loves bridge but only in small doses. Within a month, she was back to her 60-hour work week.

“To this day, I’m not happy when I’m not working,” she said.

And, anyway, everything she loves is at work — cooking, baking, people, her family. Two children and four grandchildren work at the restaurant or related businesses.

And she lives four blocks from the restaurant.

Zehnder said she doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about a long career.

“I’ve never been the kind to sit and contemplate,” she said. “I’m too busy for that.”

How does she relax on Monday, her only day off? By baking, of course.

And Roxie, the daughter who made her mom miss Thanksgiving in 1956, visits from western Michigan, and the two women, elbow deep in dough, swap recipes and joust over who makes the best cookies and pastries.

She liked cooking with mom

Dorothy grew up on a farm but didn’t much care for it.

This was the 1930s before most of the work was done by machines. The hours were long, the weather hot. Chickens pecked at her hands while horses scared her.

The only thing she liked was cooking with her mom.

“I still use most of her recipes,” she said. “I like to learn something new, either through my experiments or from other cooks.”

At 16, she became a waitress at Fischer’s restaurant and met Tiny Zehnder, whose family owned Zehnder’s restaurant across the street.

The Zehnder family bought Fischer’s in 1950 and had Tiny and Dorothy, married by that time, run it. They later changed the name to the Bavarian Inn.

Tiny asked Dorothy which part of the restaurant she wanted to work in. She picked the kitchen.

“Her office is really the kitchen,” said Mandy Borsenik, the restaurant’s marketing manager.

Dorothy began with three dishes left by the old owner — chicken, steak or fish. Fiddling with her mom’s recipes, she eventually created 50 choices spread over an 11-page menu.

During a time when few mothers worked, she brought her children to the restaurant, putting them on a pushcart and giving them teapots filled with water to play with.

When she was in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, cleaning chickens, making dough, she wheeled the kids next to her so they could be together.

The restaurant slowly grew from 50 customers a day to thousands who fill the 12 dining rooms, bakery and gift shop on the three-floor structure.

Zehnder’s son, Bill, now is president of the company while her daughter, Judy Keller, is president of the Bavarian Inn Lodge.

Bill Zehnder said restaurant workers usually are classified the front or back of the house but neither describes his mom.

“She is the heart of the house,” he said. “She sets the tone.”

Energetic great-grandma

Times have changed. Dorothy no longer peels potatoes. She’s gone from 12 workers, most of whom spoke German, to 200, who speak English.

Her office looms over the 20,000-square-foot kitchen but, more often than not, she’s down on the floor, working side by side with the staff.

Moving through the kitchen last week, the great-grandmother wore a white smock over her red dirndl, which had her name tag.

She started her day at 9 a.m. by checking the menus for private parties. After tasting various foods, she visited the bakery and retail shop, which sells baked goods.

She then helped the staff make salads and sandwiches.

All of this was done before the first customer walked through the door.

“She’s a whirlwind,” said Gary Chalmers of Saginaw, 54, whose family has eaten at the restaurant for three generations. “I hope I have half her energy when I’m that age.”

Zehnder still shows workers how to do things and she still checks with them later to make sure the lesson stuck.

Anyone who has ever worked at the Bavarian Inn knows chicken breasts are always served with the bone down.

At Chicken Station Number One, Zehnder showed amazing nimbleness when a breast fell from a plate on the counter. She quickly caught it before it hit the floor.

Her reflexes remain sharp. So is her mind. Why would she stop working now?

“I’m not the bingo type,” she said. “I guess I’m still a kid at heart.”

Twitter: @francisXdonnell