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How World Famous Chicken Got Its Start in Frankenmuth

Waitresses in front of Zehnder's famous neon sign

It’s no secret that among the things we’re famous for here in Frankenmuth, family style chicken dinners top the list. Simply pull up a chair at Bavarian Inn Restaurant or mosey across Main Street (just beyond the neon sign and giant chicken-shaped topiary) and into Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, and you’ll soon find why the family-centered traditions at these world famous establishments make coming back again and again a must.

But, while sitting down to a platter full of premium, golden, fried chicken, delighting in homemade dressing, or savoring the addictive cracker crumble atop your German buttered noodles, have you ever stopped to wonder: how did these two giants of German cuisine come to be? Get ready, because we’re sharing the history of how our family-owned-and-operated favorites – Bavarian Inn Restaurant and Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth – founded their food-loving legacies in Frankenmuth?


The Start of Family Style Chicken Dinners in Frankenmuth

Black and white photo of the Exchange Hotel
The Exchange Hotel

The first restaurant meals served in Frankenmuth were plated and perfected inside the Fischer Hotel (what stands today as Bavarian Inn Restaurant). Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth’s (then, the New Exchange Hotel) strategy for success at that time was to serve the overflow of customers from the Fischer Hotel. The Exchange Hotel – brought to life in 1856, just eleven years after the 1845 founding of Frankenmuth itself – was purchased in 1928 by William and Emilie Zehnder with the proceeds from their 80-acre farm and a bit of borrowed money. Within their first year of ownership, William and Emilie completed an extensive remodel, opening for business on Mother’s Day of 1929, when they served 312 guests for just $1 each!

Original Zehnder's Restaurant
Zehnder’s Hotel

After weathering the hardships of Prohibition and the Great Depression with Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, the Zehnder family had the chance to buy out their competition just across Main Street – then Fischer’s Hotel (originally opened in 1888 as the Union House Hotel, and now known today as the iconic Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn Restaurant). And, in 1950, they did just that – purchasing Fischer’s and naming their son William “Tiny” Zehnder, Jr. as its manager.

Zehnder's Hotel
Zehnder’s Hotel

A hardworking farmer who, ironically, used to stop at Fischer’s Hotel each day for garbage to feed his hogs, Tiny left his life on the farm (alongside his loving wife, Dorothy – a former Fischer’s waitress) and the two went on to manage Fischer’s, making massive improvements including a kitchen modernization and major architectural upgrades.

Waitresses in front of Zehnder's famous neon sign
Waitresses in front of Zehnder’s famous neon sign. This sign is thought to be the world’s oldest continuously used neon sign! You can see the Fichers Hotel, Chicken Dinners sign in the background.

Less than a decade later, in the midst of a nationwide recession, the Zehnder family chose to expand Fischer’s rather than close it, incorporating authentic, Bavarian elements into the entire restaurant experience, from exterior Bavarian accents to new, German entrees and the addition of Bavarian costume-clad servers. In 1959, a weeklong celebration of the restaurant’s grand re-opening as the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn Restaurant was held – a tradition continued today as the beloved Frankenmuth Bavarian Festival.

Bavarian Inn History Sketches
Bavarian Inn History Sketches

By 1965, brothers Eddie and Tiny Zehnder had purchased the family business from their remaining brothers and sisters, partnering with other passionate, local entrepreneurs like Wally Bronner (originator of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland) to become the driving forces behind the transformation of the small, agricultural town of Frankenmuth into what we all know and love today as Michigan’s Little Bavaria.

Tiny and Eddie Zehnder, the "Chicken Brothers"
Eddie & Tiny Zehnder, the “Chicken Brothers”

Bavarian Inn Restaurant Today

Bavarian Inn Restaurant
Bavarian Inn Restaurant

Following the grand re-opening of the former Fischer’s Hotel as the new Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn Restaurant in 1959, constant expansions and remodeling transformed the building into a true, Bavarian-themed wonderland, complete with 12 dining rooms capable of serving 1,200 guests at once and a landmark 50-foot Glockenspiel depicting the legend of the Pied Piper of Hameln.

While Tiny Zehnder may no longer be here on earth, his wife, Dorothy, can still be found (at 95 years young!) in the Bavarian Inn Restaurant kitchen, where she’s worked since the purchase of the restaurant in 1950. Many of the incredible flavors you’ll find on the Bavarian Inn Restaurant menu were developed by Dorothy herself, and she still proudly has a hand in making many of them, with three generations of the Zehnder family by her side to oversee daily operations of the Bavarian Inn Restaurant, as well as the family owned-and-operated Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn Lodge and Frankenmuth River Place Shops.


Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth Today

Zehnder's of Frankenmuth Restaurant

Between 1995 & 1996, Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth’s Heritage Room was doubled in size, bringing the restaurant’s overall seating capacity to 1,500. And, while the building itself makes Zehnder’s “America’s Largest Family Restaurant”, the platters of premium, golden brown chicken, mouthwatering breads, and so-worth-the-trip sides are what make the Zehnder’s experience larger-than-life. And an experience, it is – encompassing dining, lodging, retail, and golf – making Zehnder’s a complete, four-season, service-oriented family destination, with a tradition of good taste started in 1856.

Today, at Zehnder’s, you can enjoy a world famous family style chicken dinner, let loose with your little ones inside the 50,000 sq. ft. waterpark wonderland known only as Zehnder’s Splash Village, escape for 18 on the lush greens of Zehnder’s championship golf course, The Fortress, buy some sweet and savory souvenirs from Zehnder’s Marketplace, and stay overnight in style inside the deluxe accommodations of Zehnder’s Splash Village.