Michigan’s ‘Little Bavaria’, world-famous Frankenmuth, hosts more that three million visitors annually. The Visionalist crew counted ourselves among those on Sunday, December 17. Two weeks before Christmas, this has to be one of their busiest weekends on the year and the crowds were massive, festive and energetic.
Two of the most influential names in Frankenmuth are Zehnder and Bronner, and we were fortunate enough to interview representatives from both of these legendary families.
The Bavarian Inn, beneath the renowned Glockenspiel Tower (housing a magnificent 35-bell carillon), is best known for its ‘all you can eat’ chicken dinners. But equally as impressive are the Castle Shops, which during this hectic shopping season are suitably packed with eager Christmas patrons.
We spoke to Karen Zehnder and her husband Bill, whose pride at their German heritage is obvious at every turn, from the 21 German beers on the menu to the strictest attention to detail in the traditional Bavarian costumes worn by the staff. The restaurant menu is loaded with German specialties like Wiener Schnitzel, Sauerbraten, Rouladen and Bratwurst. But by a huge margin, the specialty is golden brown chicken, which the restaurant (with 1200 seats) goes through in astonishing quintiles—nearly three quarters of a million pounds per year. Add to that six hundred thousand pounds of potatoes, two hundred thousand pounds of squash and nearly 25,000 bottles of wine, and you have one busy establishment.
But the upbeat nature of the Zehnders is astonishing, even in the face of such busy working days. Karen’s mother-in-law Dorothy, 85 years old (65 of which she has spend as co-owner of the Inn), still puts in full six-day weeks. She has personally developed most of the recipes used in the restaurant and has taught thousands of employees the correct method to prepare all of the food that is served in the twelve dining rooms. Today, she describes the anise-flavored springerle (Christmas cookies) and displays the traditional molds the bakery uses in their production.
Sadly, earlier this years Dorothy’s husband William (Tiny) Zehnder Jr.died at age 87, but his passing was peaceful, at home, and surrounded by his family. May 23, 2006. Our greatest respects.
A third generation of Zehnder is eagerly working at the Inn: Dorothy’s oldest granddaughter, Amy Zehnder Grossi, is General Manager of the Restaurant while son-in-law, Don Keller, directs marketing and promotions for the entire corporation.
From a lips-smacking meal at Bavarian Inn, we headed to Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland.
Founded in 1945 by Wally Bronner. When Wally began as a sign-painter over 50 years ago, little did he dream that his small business would one day become the world's largest Christmas store visited by millions of people. Open 361 days of the year, Bronner's features over 50,000 trims and gifts, including Christmas ornaments, artificial Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Nativity scenes, Christmas decorations, collectibles, and more.
We found Wally eager to be interviewed, and as he stood in his classic red coat and ‘Joy To The World’ necktie, he reminisced about the many years of pleasure his store has brought him. Stopping frequently in the midst of the interview to greet customers, Wally is the quintessential shopkeeper—friendly, outgoing, and he never seems to forget a name.
The current store size, which has expanded numerous times through necessity over the years, is at one and a half football fields. Despite his success, Wally Bronner remains a humble and holy individual. He never loses sight of the true meaning of Christmas, and the store is renowned for celebrating the birth of Christ year-round. According to Wally, "Enjoy CHRISTmas, It's HIS birthday; Enjoy Life, It's HIS way."