Even before Frankenmuth began attracting millions, the tiny town was a popular place that people would frequent for large dinners served at fair prices. But it wasn’t a Bavarian-themed village with resort-style accommodations, shops galore, and adventurous opportunities – yet.
“In the 1950s,” said Al Zehnder, CEO of Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, “WWII had been over for more than 10 years, the auto industry was still strong regardless of a recession, people were traveling, tourism was happening… ”
At that time, Frankenmuth was home to two restaurants, Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, which opened in 1929 on Mother’s Day, and Fischer’s Hotel, where travelers would stop for dinner as they passed through Frankenmuth. However, both establishments (owned by brothers and sisters within the Zehnder family) were restaurants, both had similar menus, and both served family-style chicken dinners.
“They recognized the need to differentiate the two properties somehow,” Al Zehnder, CEO of Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, said of his father, aunts, uncles, who together owned both restaurants at the time.
On a vacation to Germany in the 1950s, inspiration struck. With a passion for Frankenmuth’s German heritage and Bavarian ancestry, and a vision for boosting tourism, William “Tiny” Zehnder introduced the idea of taking a Bavarian thematic approach for the family business — and for Frankenmuth.
“My dad pushed to make our town different from any other town." Judy Zehnder Keller, President of the Bavarian Inn Lodge.
“Everybody was behind it,” Al Zehnder said, “everyone was interested in a family and a community working together.”
With a vision in place, the Zehnder family completely overhauled Fischer’s to include authentic Bavarian exterior accents, traditional German menu items, and Bavarian costume-clad servers. In 1959, the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn opened its doors to the public — and the Bavarian theme of Frankenmuth was officially born.
The Road of Opportunity
Just as Frankenmuth officially adopted it’s now well-known Bavarian theme, another large change took place, one that brought opportunity by the carloads. In 1959, Interstate 75, or I-75, was expanded into Michigan, and hundreds of thousands of cars were now driving just six miles from Frankenmuth.
“We began to see that Frankenmuth could become a destination,” Al Zehnder said. “We’ve got the Cass Riverfront, we’re not a gated community and anyone can come here for free. People were traveling, and we wanted Frankenmuth to become the place they visited to enjoy an authentic experience and community.”
Developing the vision of Frankenmuth as Michigan’s “Little Bavaria” tourist destination hasn’t happened overnight. Rather, the all-encompassing experience that’s available today is the culmination of multiple investments, a series of expansions over time, and a community that works together.
A SERIES OF EXPANSIONS
“Frankenmuth has excellent cooperation,” said Wayne Bronner, President and CEO of Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. “We’re a small community of around 5,000 people. We depend on tourism, and we all cater to the same visitors.”
Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, originally founded by Wally Bronner (Wayne’s father), in 1945, experienced multiple expansions over the years before moving in 1977 to its current location at 25 Christmas Lane. A 1991 addition to the building nearly doubled its size, and a major expansion in 2002 brought the Bronner’s building size to an astounding 5.5 football fields! The “World’s Largest Christmas Store” is visited by more than two million people annually.
When the Bavarian Inn Lodge first opened in 1986 as a full-service hotel, “it was to provide a feature for Frankenmuth that we didn’t have [at the time,]” said Judy Zehnder Keller. The Lodge began with 100 rooms, an indoor pool, and Oma’s Restaurant. An additional 156 rooms were added in 1995, along with a third indoor pool with a waterfall and an indoor, 18-hole miniature golf course. Today, the Bavarian Inn Lodge includes 360 European-themed guest rooms and a Family Fun Center with two waterslides.
Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth didn’t start out as a “Four Season Family Vacation Destination - Hotel, Waterpark, Dining, Shopping & Golf”. Beginning as a family restaurant in 1929, Zehnder’s underwent a massive expansion in the early 1970s (which included digging out and creating a lower level underneath the restaurant) to include Zehnder’s Marketplace shops and Z Chef’s Cafe. In 1992, Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth opened The Fortress, a golf course designed to reflect characteristics of golf's early Scottish origins that is now one of Michigan’s top championship golf courses.
In 2005, Zehnder’s Splash Village Hotel & Waterpark was opened. The resort-style Splash Village has undergone multiple phases of expansion (with more on the horizon) to offer 178 deluxe rooms, an on-site arcade, restaurant, poolside fare and a 50,000-square-foot waterpark that’s not only the largest in Michigan -- it’s the only waterpark in the world that includes two distinct waterparks, both with retractable roofs!
“The demands of today continue to grow,” said Al Zehnder of the tourism industry. “Not only do you have to reinvest or your product becomes stale, but we’ve got to continually meet the level of expectations our guests have about our establishments. We have to operate at the highest level.”
STRONG BUSINESS COMMUNITY
A community working together to make Michigan’s “Little Bavaria” a premiere destination, the late Wally Bronner would say, “We don’t compete, we compliment each other.”
“From smaller shop owners to large hotel owners,” says Al Zehnder, “we all work together. Everyone’s pulling in the same direction.”
“We don’t compete, we compliment each other.” - Wally Bronner