Thanksgiving in a city built on lederhosen and unlimited meals

For more than a century, this town on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula has made its reputation on family-style chicken dinners, served in much the same way as in 1937, when the New York Times proclaimed Frankenmuth ” the Mecca of gourmets ”.

The chickens are boiled whole, left in the fridge, then cut into 10 parts which are breaded and lightly fried until the meat is hot and juicy. But roast turkey joins chicken dinner for the holidays, and Thursday is set to be the busiest day of the year for the two “Frankenmuth dinner” restaurants that face each other on South Main Street: Bavarian Inn and Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth. . Nearly 30,000 guests are expected during the four-day bank holiday weekend.

“It’s the food,” said Dorothy Zehnder, founder of the Bavarian Inn, who turns 100 on December 1. “They know they eat well, and Thanksgiving and Christmas are really family affairs, family days.”

They also have nostalgia by the acre, served with the taste of Lawrence Welk at the time of champagne bubbles. Like those traveling to Solvang, Calif., Or Leavenworth, Washington, visitors to Frankenmuth experience a sham from another place – or in this case, many places, from old Bavaria to Colonial America to the North Pole – filled with polka music, wine tastings, waterslides, and reminders that rock band Greta Van Fleet started here.

Frankenmuth’s German heritage is woven throughout the city, in the 15-meter Glockenspiel tower of the Bavarian Inn, in hotel rooms bearing the names of the founding families, and in Fraktur lettering throughout. The front of the post office features larger-than-life cutouts of Hummel figurines that send porcelain letters directly, one would imagine, to a visitor’s heart.

The rope pull is strongest on Thanksgiving and Christmas. A family-style dinner, followed by a visit to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, which bills itself as the world’s largest Christmas store, is a ready-made keepsake.

This year, hopes are high. Michigan restaurants reopened to full capacity this summer and this month the border opened to Canadian visitors, who before the pandemic were a significant portion of out-of-town guests. The spacious dining rooms, which can seat 1,200 people or more, were dark on Thanksgiving last. Take out was the only option, with only a small fraction of the staff running the show; Bavarian Inn staff numbers are still below pre-pandemic levels, while Zehnder’s is roughly back to normal.

“For us, take out is like telling a car dealership, ‘You can’t sell cars, but you can do oil changes,'” said Al Zehnder, CEO of Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth .

Mention Frankenmuth to a Michigander and she’ll quickly notice if she’s from a family of Zehnder devotees or Bavarian Inn fans. The two restaurants present clear stylistic differences, starting with the facades. Zehnder looks like Mount Vernon, if George Washington was advertising neon. The Bavarian Inn has a ‘living hills’ feel to it.

Servers at the Bavarian Inn wear dirndls or lederhosen. Those of Zehnder dress in the restaurant’s colonial theme, with women in white caps and aprons, and men in banded collared shirts with panties.

The meal at Zehnder’s begins with garlic toast and orbs of cheese spread and pâté, while at the Bavarian Inn the opening attraction could be an accordion serenade from award-winning Linda Lee. Polka Hall of Fame. “They have more American food and we have more German food,” said Dorothy Zehnder of the Bavarian Inn.

But the all-you-can-eat menus are largely the same. Both restaurants offer chicken noodle soup and slices of bread-sized stollen, conservatively sprinkled with candied fruit. And both end their bottomless meals with soft serve ice cream. At Zehnder’s, the dessert is topped with a translucent plastic animal that the restaurant calls a Zoo Pick. At the Bavarian Inn, it’s the choice of a boy or a girl dressed in alpine clothing.

Al Zehnder once thought about saving a few dollars by getting rid of Zoo Picks. The customers were screaming. “We had to get them back,” he said, adding: “The expectation of the guests is really singular.”

And there’s more. Beneath each restaurant is an underground maze of shops selling toys, collectibles, cookware, and Frankenmuth favorites like fresh butterhorns, sweet buns that will survive a long drive home. The idea is to entertain the guests while they wait for a table.

“We live in a sort of ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ town,” said Wayne Bronner, CEO of Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. “I explain this to people, and the younger ones say, ‘Who are Ozzie and Harriet? “”

How this predominantly German-American town in the Saginaw Valley, near Michigan’s ‘thumb’, became a satiety destination is a James Michener novel-worthy saga, full of religious fervor, tinsel, beer and a family dynasty that is synonymous with the chicken dinner.

With the city’s emphasis on German heritage, however, it’s easy to miss the other group early in the story.

This expanse of farmland was once a forest of oak, hickory and white pine, the hunting grounds of the Chippewa. The Treaty of Saginaw, an 1819 agreement with the U.S. government, stripped the Saginaw, Swan Creek, and Black River Bands of 6 million acres in Michigan, although later treaties placed land in trust, whose sales were supposed to benefit Native Americans. .

Frankenmuth was founded by 15 Lutherans, led by August Craemer, who immigrated with the stated purpose of converting Native Americans to Christianity. In 1845, the group bought 680 acres of ancient Native American land from the government for $ 1,700, or about $ 62,000 today.

The first Zehnder, including Johann Stephan Zehnder, arrived in Frankenmuth the following year with a second group of German Lutherans. During those early years, Craemer ran a mission school in Frankenmuth and taught religious doctrine in German to a few dozen Chippewa children.

Today, less than 20 of Frankenmuth’s estimated 5,000 residents identify as Native Americans, according to the 2020 census. A marker in the town’s memorial park notes Frankenmuth’s connection to the Chippewa; the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe of Michigan has a reservation 70 miles to the west at Mount Pleasant.

“The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe celebrates all those who take the time to remember where they came from and maintain those ties to ancient traditions and celebrations,” wrote Frank Cloutier, the tribe’s public relations director, in an e -mail. “As Thanksgiving approaches, we are mindful of the fall harvest celebration in the late 1600s, when pilgrims from Europe were invited to break bread with the natives. As they shared their culture back then, we still do today.

Frankenmuth’s culture of hospitality, or Gemütlichkeit, dates back to the late 19th century, when a brewery and hotels fed travelers traveling between Saginaw and Flint. In 1928, William Zehnder Sr, Johann’s grandson, bought a hotel on Main Street across from the Fischer Hotel, where most travelers of the time stopped for a chicken dinner.

An admirer of George Washington, William Zehnder remodeled his hotel to resemble Mount Vernon, and it opened as the family’s first restaurant on Mother’s Day in 1929. right outside the doorstep of the Depression.

Visitors continued to stop at Frankenmuth as the beer continued to flow. “’A kettle of tea’ was the password,” said Heidi Chapman, director of the Frankenmuth Historical Association. The government imposed heavy fines on the Zehnder and the Fischer, and federal agents destroyed both bars.

After WWII, Wally Bronner, a sign painter who had gained fame for his work decorating area businesses in Christmas splendor, added a nod to Frankenmuth’s tourism industry by opening its first Christmas store.

“The shiny red ornaments are our # 1 seller,” said Wayne Bronner, his son. Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland employs 75 people, a tenth of its regular staff, just to paint the names of customers on the ornaments. The 320,000-square-foot store – roughly 100,000 of its retail space – is the size of five football fields and sells everything from velvet Santa costumes to job-specific balls. (“Avocados never lose their appeal!” “Plumbers go with the flow.”)

The Zehnder family bought the Fischer’s Hotel restaurant in 1950. Dorothy Zehnder and her husband, William Zehnder Jr (aka Tiny – he was a little baby), built an addition, in 1959, designed by an architect who agreed to work only about the project. if he could do it in a German style.

“On the day we opened, business exploded,” said Dorothy Zehnder. “It really flourished, and then, of course, we became German. We had.”

Tiny Zehnder persuaded the city elders to weave the Old World pattern throughout the city. There is faux fachwerk (half-timbering) and the Octoberfest blue and white diamond pattern all along Main Street.

The Zehnder family ran the two restaurants until the 1980s, when the second generation split the company into two entities to pursue different business interests. Dorothy Zehnder’s family runs the Bavarian Inn and a shopping center; Al Zehnder, his sisters Martha and Susan, and their families operate the Zehnder Restaurant and a golf course. Each has a bakery and a hotel with a water park.

In 2020, the James Beard Foundation honored Zehnder’s as one of its American classics, beloved regional restaurants that are often run by families.

“Our main focus has really been to create a four-season family vacation destination,” said Al Zehnder. “The focus on family has really not changed since the founding. “

One family, the Murins of Irwin, Pa., Have been planning their Thanksgiving trip to Frankenmuth since the summer. Emily Murin and her husband Jonathan are loving the Christmas season (“It’s the only thing that unites us,” she said) and wanted to take their daughters, Gianna, 5, and Gabriella, 4, with them. on a vacation trip in their new caravan.

They chose Frankenmuth over Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, as the drive to Michigan would be on flatter ground. They plan to arrive on Wednesday, have Thanksgiving dinner Thursday, shop at Bronner’s Friday and maybe take a trip to Splash Village on Saturday before returning home, where four decorated Christmas trees await their return.

Emily Murin polled Facebook groups run by Frankenmuth fans before deciding where to eat.

“I posted on the local bands saying, ‘OK, well, which one will it be: Zehnder’s or Bavarian Inn? Who is the winner? ‘ And it was actually a very, very dead heat, ”she said. “So this was the time of the reservation. “

When the Murins sit down for Thanksgiving dinner at the Bavarian Inn, they discover a dining style that hasn’t changed much since Dorothy Zehnder began her career as a waitress in 1937.

Even so, not all diners are bound by tradition. “You would be surprised,” said Dorothy Zehnder, “by the number of steaks we serve on Thanksgiving.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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