A town with twinkling lights overhead and German charm all around. A destination where one can dine at world-famous restaurants, sample authentic Bavarian hospitality, and stroll along Main Street in a horse-drawn carriage, taking in legendary stories behind the historic streets traveled. What does it take to become a community that, all together, offers a one-of-a-kind experience? It takes a village, and the unique kind of village that we’re celebrating here: 175 years of Frankenmuth, Michigan!
Little Bavaria & Big Opportunity
Tourists who visit Michigan’s “Little Bavaria”, a village measuring just 3.17 square miles in size, are welcomed to huge opportunities at every turn. Guests can experience the “World’s Largest Christmas Store” that is Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, dine at two of the largest family-owned restaurants in the United States (enjoying chicken dinners and German entrees that draw visitors worldwide), and plunge into the only waterpark in the whole world that has two distinct waterparks, both with retractable roofs.
From sauntering through Main Street shops and the iconic Cheese Haus, to enjoying the German-themed, outdoor Frankenmuth River Place Shops — or joining hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic visitors donning lederhosen and dirndls at year round festivals from Zehnder’s Snowfest to the Bavarian Festival — opportunities for guests are ripe in Frankenmuth because it’s comprised of a community that grows together.
“Whether you’re a smaller business owner, or you own a large hotel,” shares Al Zehnder, CEO of Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, “we all work together. Everyone’s pulling in the same direction.”
“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.”
Close-knit Community & Tourist Destination
What began with just 15 brave souls and a steadfast mission in 1845 is today the community of Frankenmuth, a tourist destination for more than 3 million visitors each year – and home to people who’ve continued the courageous spirit and German heritage of its founders into the present day.
“You have to have passion,” says Judy Zehnder Keller, president of the Bavarian Inn. “We live here, we want this to be the best it can be.”
Developing the vision of Frankenmuth as the tourist destination Michigan’s “Little Bavaria” didn’t happen overnight. The thematic approach and Bavarian ambiance that now unifies Frankenmuth didn’t even exist until the late 1950s, and the notion of attracting tourism didn’t take hold until 1959 when Interstate 75, or I-75, was expanded into Michigan and hundreds of thousands of cars were newly driving by 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.”
One Village & Many Visitors
After culmination of family businesses, multiple investments and expansions over time, and a community that works together to create “Little Bavaria”, Frankenmuth today is a collective effort that is generations in the making.
“We’ve had to invest and reinvest,” says Judy Zehnder Keller. “The numbers supported building new businesses. When you’re developing, there’s risk involved... and there are risk takers.”
Judy Zehnder Keller says business owners have to be able to implement creative ideas into profitable endeavors. For example, Judy Zehnder Keller shares that the inspiration behind Frankenmuth’s wildly popular Frankenmuth Dog Bowl and Hot Air Balloon Festival was initially to boost tourism around Memorial Day, once a known slow time in Frankenmuth.
“Tourism is fickle,” Al Zehnder says. “You have to continually reinvest or your product becomes stale.” Zehnder says that guests expect a certain level of quality when visiting Frankenmuth, and he enjoys that consumer expectation levels are always rising.
“We want to be the number one, premiere destination in Michigan,” Al Zehnder says. “We have to operate at the highest level. Guests will thank you by returning.”