Dorothy Zehnder, co-founder of the family-owned Bavarian Inn Restaurant plans to celebrate her 95th birthday on Thursday, Dec. 1 doing what she does most days–working in the family business.
“I like working,” she said. “I like to cook, and I like people. What else is there that I would like better?”
Over the years, Zehnder has been involved with all the family’s business operations, all located in Frankenmuth – Michigan’s Little Bavaria. In addition to the restaurant, they include Bavarian Inn Lodge, Castle Shops, River Place Shops, Covered Bridge & Leather Gift Shop, Frankenmuth Cheese Haus, a specialty line of food products, and online store. She founded the restaurant with her late husband, William “Tiny” Zehnder, after his family purchased the former Fischer’s Hotel in 1950. At that time, the Zehnders and their 12 employees served about 50 people a day. Today, the Bavarian Inn Restaurant has 450 employees, serves thousands of people a day in 12 dining rooms. Her children and their spouses, along with her grandchildren – a total of nine family members – work alongside her every day.
Despite Michigan’s economic struggles over the years, the Bavarian Inn has held its own. While the restaurant and travel industries continue to experience challenges, the Bavarian Inn is remaining profitable. She told Modern Restaurant Management magazine one of the high points in her life was when, after 20 years of striving, the family was able to obtain a liquor license. That change alone greatly increased business within a few months.
“People wanted hard liquor,” Zehnder said.
After being in business for eight years, they considered shutting down, but she encouraged her husband to take a chance and take some advice to reposition the site using a Bavarian theme.
“If you have a challenge you have to work it out. I knew we had to do something big to draw people.”
Today, her main mission is to oversee quality control in the kitchen – making sure the food meets her high standards before heading to the dining room.
Here are Zehnder’s life lessons for the restaurant industry.
Like many people in the restaurant business, I got my start waiting tables. Since 1937, I’ve learned a lot – both in the kitchen, and out in our dining rooms. We’ve had four generations of family members involved in the business, and some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned revolve around longevity – keeping our restaurant, lodge, and other businesses successful for future generations – that’s forever in our industry.
What lessons could I share with my restaurant and hospitality colleagues? Actually, they’re pretty basic…
My co-workers (we call them team members) will tell you that I’m a stickler for details. When you’re serving thousands of meals a year, it’s critical to delight every single customer while keeping our business profitable. Paying attention to details pays off.
Write Out the Recipe
At the Bavarian Inn, we’ve been able to thrive and expand because all of our menu items are based on written recipes for everyone to follow. A lot of restaurants do not survive because when their “Dorothy” isn’t there, the food doesn’t taste as good. We believe the Bavarian Inn will be in business forever, so we write out the recipes, and we follow them to the letter.
Chat it Up in the Kitchen
It’s very important to spend quality time with the kitchen staff, from the head chef to the prep cooks. Ask questions, and insist on a high level of quality and consistency. Three words: watch, taste, and ask.
Buy Local, Cook Local
We work very hard to showcase fresh, locally-grown food when it is in season. For example, we process and serve over 70 tons of squash grown at a nearby farm. We use 1,500 bushels of Michigan-grown apples, and nearly 50,000 gallons of milk each year from Michigan dairies. We’ve developed longtime relationships with our suppliers, which helps assure we’re getting the highest-quality products for our guests.
Love What You Do
The core values of the Bavarian Inn are summarized in four words: trust, respect, optimism and fun. I’ve always believed that work should be fun. When you have fun at work, you can’t wait to come back, and your guests will feel the same way. If they experience fun though your attitude, they’ll be coming back.
Treasure Those Around You
Finally, take the time to show love and appreciation for family, co-workers, and guests. To make a business like our Bavarian Inn successful, you have to work very hard at building and nurturing relationships. Treat people the way you want to be treated.
Zehnder is also the author of two cookbooks, “Come Cook with Me,” published in 2011, and the follow-up “From My Kitchen to Yours,” published in 2014. Both cookbooks are available for purchase at the online store at www.bavarianinn.com.