Dorothy Zehnder, Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn

Turning Family Traditions Into a Family Empire

by Cliff Duvernois

Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn with Dorothy Zehnder

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I have done hundreds of interviews. This one by far is my favorite.

Tiny and Dorothy Zehnder are the most hard-working people I’ve ever seen. In high school, I worked at the Bavarian Inn for a number of years. Every time I was working, they were working even harder. Dorothy in the Kitchen. Tiny helping out in the dining rooms.

To sit down all these years later and have Dorothy open up about the history of her family empire was an honor.

In this episode, Dorothy Talks About:

  • How They Worked To Survive When They Had No Money
  • Dorothy’s Biggest Inspiration
  • What it takes to build a world-renown restaurant.


Before the Bavarian Inn Restaurant was called the Bavarian Inn Restaurant, it was known as the Fischer Hotel. Tiny and Dorothy made the decision to buy the Fischer Hotel to make out their living. This was in 1950.

In 1955, Congress passed the National Highway Infrastructure Act. The largest infrastructure project ever undertaken by a modern country. This bill used federal money to build highways and freeways across the United States. Before this, people drove state roads to get to their destination.

The infrastructure act did have an unfortunate consequence.

If your town was not located right next to a highway, people had no reason to visit. They were more focused on getting to their final destination rather than stopping for a meal.

In the wake of this bill, many small towns folded up.

Frankenmuth almost suffered this same fate. With I-75 located about 20 miles away, this almost spelled disaster for this little town. Traffic all but evaporated.

In this interview to Frankenmuth Historian Dan Haubenstricker, Tiny Zehnder, his brother Eddie Zehnder, and Wally Bronner came to an agreement. They had to go all in on the German theme for Frankenmuth. To make Frankenmuth a tourist destination that would make people get off the freeway, visit their town, and spend their vacation dollars there.

In the interview, Dorothy says that Tiny invested heavily in the city of Frankenmuth. “You have to invest in the town,” he would say. Because he knew that Frankenmuth would not survive with just one lone Bavarian-themed restaurant. It would take a village. A german village to survive.

Along with the German theme decor of the city, they laughed the Bavarian Festivals, Octoberfest, and many of the other festivals and parades in Frankenmuth.

Their gamble worked.

“Many of the World War II Veterans stationed in Europe had very fond memories of Bavaria,” Dan said in our interview. “For them, coming to Frankenmuth to experience the fine Bavarian style food and beer was a pleasant experience.”

With Frankenmuth now donning the mantle of Michigan’s Little Bavaria, tourist started coming en masse. Now hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Frankenmuth year round to enjoy this little slice of Germany.


Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn Website

Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn Facebook Page


Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn
713 S Main St,
Frankenmuth, MI 48734

Phone: (989) 652-9941