Thanksgiving in a Town Built on Lederhosen and Limitless Meals


FRANKENMUTH, Mich. — No matter the season, each all-you-can-eat dinner right here attracts from the palette of Thanksgiving: creamy drifts of mashed potatoes, golden swirls of buttered egg noodles, army-green forests of completely cooked broccoli and garnet puddles of cranberry sauce.

For greater than a century, this metropolis in Central Michigan has made its popularity on family-style hen dinners, served a lot the identical method they had been in 1937, when this newspaper proclaimed Frankenmuth “a mecca for gourmets.”

Chickens are boiled complete, left to sit back, then minimize into 10 elements which can be breaded and evenly fried until the meat is sizzling and juicy. But roast turkey joins the hen dinner for the vacations, and this Thursday is predicted to be the busiest day of the yr for the 2 “Frankenmuth dinner” eating places that face one another throughout South Main Street: Bavarian Inn and Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth. Nearly 30,000 diners are anticipated in the course of the four-day vacation weekend.

“It’s the food,” stated Dorothy Zehnder, a founding father of the Bavarian Inn, who will flip 100 on Dec. 1. “They know they get good food, and Thanksgiving and Christmas are really family affairs, family days.”

They additionally get nostalgia by the acre, served up with the gusto of Lawrence Welk at Champagne-bubble time. Like those that journey to Solvang, Calif., or Leavenworth, Wash., guests to Frankenmuth expertise a simulacrum of one other place — or in this case, many locations, from outdated Bavaria to colonial America to the North Pole — crammed with polka music, wine tastings, water slides and reminders that the rock band Greta Van Fleet began right here.

Frankenmuth’s German heritage is woven by means of the town, in the Bavarian Inn’s 50-foot Glockenspiel tower, in the lodge rooms named for founding households and in the Fraktur lettering all over the place. The entrance of the publish workplace sports activities larger-than-life cutouts of Hummel collectible figurines mailing porcelain letters straight, one imagines, to a customer’s coronary heart.

This yr, hopes are excessive. Michigan’s eating places reopened to full capability simply this summer time, and this month the border opened to Canadian guests, who earlier than the pandemic made up a sizable portion of the out-of-town company. The spacious eating rooms, which might seat 1,200 or extra, had been darkish final Thanksgiving. Takeout was the one possibility, with solely a small fraction of the workers operating the present; the variety of staff on the Bavarian Inn continues to be under prepandemic ranges, whereas Zehnder’s has nearly returned to regular.

“Takeout, for us, is like telling a car dealer, ‘You can’t sell cars but you can do oil changes,’” stated Al Zehnder, the chief government of Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth.

Mention Frankenmuth to a Michigander and she’ll be fast to notice whether or not she comes from a household of Zehnder’s loyalists or Bavarian Inn followers. The two eating places have clear stylistic variations, beginning with the facades. Zehnder’s appears like Mount Vernon, if George Washington marketed with neon. The Bavarian Inn has a “hills are alive” really feel.

Servers on the Bavarian Inn put on dirndls or lederhosen. Those at Zehnder’s gown in the restaurant’s colonial theme, with girls in mobcaps and white aprons, and males in banded-collared shirts with knickers.

The meal at Zehnder’s begins with garlic toasts and orbs of spreadable cheese and pâté, whereas on the Bavarian Inn, the opening attraction could be an accordion serenade by Linda Lee, an honoree of the Polka Hall of Fame. “They have more American food, and we have more German food,” stated Mrs. Zehnder, of the Bavarian Inn.

But the all-you-can-eat menus are largely the identical. Both eating places provide hen noodle soup and stollen slices the scale of sandwich bread, conservatively studded with candied fruits. And each finish their bottomless meals with soft-serve ice cream. At Zehnder’s, the dessert is topped with a translucent plastic animal the restaurant calls a Zoo Pick. At the Bavarian Inn, it’s a decide of a boy or woman dressed in Alpine clothes.

Mr. Zehnder as soon as considered saving a couple of dollars by eliminating the Zoo Picks. Customers howled. “We had to get them back,” he stated, including, “The expectation of the guests is really singular.”

And there’s extra. Beneath every restaurant is an underground warren of outlets promoting toys, collectibles, cookware and Frankenmuth favorites like recent butterhorns, candy rolls that can survive a lengthy automotive experience residence. The thought is to maintain company entertained whereas they anticipate a desk.

“We live in an ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ kind of a town,” stated Wayne Bronner, the chief government of Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. “I explain that to people, and the younger people, they say, ‘Who are Ozzie and Harriet?’”

How this predominantly German American metropolis in the Saginaw Valley, close to the bottom of the Michigan “thumb,” grew to become a vacation spot for satiation is a saga worthy of a James Michener novel, full with spiritual fervor, tinsel, beer and a household dynasty that’s synonymous with the hen dinner.

With the town’s focus on German heritage, although, it’s simple to overlook the opposite group firstly of the story.

This stretch of farmland was as soon as oak, hickory and white-pine forest, the looking grounds of the Chippewa. The Treaty of Saginaw, an 1819 settlement with the United States authorities, stripped the Saginaw, Swan Creek and Black River Bands of six million acres in Michigan, although subsequent treaties put some land in a belief, the gross sales of which had been supposed to profit Native Americans.

Frankenmuth was based by 15 Lutherans, led by August Craemer, who immigrated with the acknowledged function of changing Native Americans to Christianity. In 1845, the group purchased 680 acres of former Native American land from the federal government for $1,700, or about $62,000 right now.

The first Zehnders, together with Johann Stephan Zehnder, arrived in Frankenmuth the next yr with a second group of German Lutherans. Those first few years, Craemer ran a missionary faculty in Frankenmuth, and taught spiritual doctrine in German to a few dozen Chippewa youngsters.

Today, fewer than 20 of Frankenmuth’s roughly 5,000 residents establish as Native American, in accordance 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, in Mount Pleasant.

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

Frankenmuth’s tradition of hospitality, or Gemütlichkeit, dates to the late nineteenth century, when a brewery and inns nourished vacationers journeying between Saginaw and Flint. In 1928, William Zehnder Sr., Johann’s grandson, purchased a lodge on Main Street reverse Fischer’s Hotel, the place most vacationers on the time stopped for a hen dinner.

An admirer of George Washington, William Zehnder transformed his lodge to appear to be Mount Vernon, and it opened because the household’s first restaurant on Mother’s Day in 1929. “What a terrible time to start a business,” Al Zehnder stated, “during Prohibition and just on the doorstep of the Depression.”

Visitors continued to cease in Frankenmuth, although, as a result of the beer continued to circulate. “‘A kettle of tea’ was the code word,” stated Heidi Chapman, director of the Frankenmuth Historical Association. The authorities levied heavy fines in opposition to the Zehnders and the Fischers, and federal brokers destroyed each bars.

After World War II, Wally Bronner, a signal painter who had gained renown for his work adorning companies across the area in Christmas splendor, added the tinselly twinkle to Frankenmuth’s vacationer business by opening his first Christmas retailer.

“Red shiny ornaments are our No. 1 seller,” stated Wayne Bronner, his son. Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland staff 75 folks, a tenth of its typical workers, simply to color clients’ names on ornaments. The 320,000-square-foot retailer — about 100,000 of it procuring area — is the scale of 5 soccer fields and sells every part from velvet Santa fits to job-specific baubles. (“Lawyers never lose their appeal!” “Plumbers go with the flow.”)

The Zehnder household purchased the restaurant Fischer’s Hotel in 1950. Mrs. Zehnder and her husband, William Zehnder Jr. (a.okay.a. Tiny — he was a small child), constructed an addition, in 1959, designed by an architect who agreed to work on the mission provided that he may do it in a German fashion.

“The day we opened up, business boomed,” Mrs. Zehnder stated. “It really flourished, and then, of course, we went German. We had to.”

Tiny Zehnder persuaded city elders to weave the Old World motif all through the town. There’s fake fachwerk (half-timbering) and the blue-and-white diamond sample of Octoberfest all alongside Main Street.

The Zehnder household ran each eating places till the Eighties, when the second technology break up the enterprise into two entities to pursue differing enterprise pursuits. Dorothy Zehnder’s household runs the Bavarian Inn and a procuring heart; Al Zehnder, his sisters Martha and Susan and their households function Zehnder’s restaurant and a golf course. Each has a bakery and a lodge with a water park.

In 2020, the James Beard Foundation honored Zehnder’s as considered one of its America’s Classics, beloved regional eating places which can be usually run by households.

“Our whole focus has really been to create a four-season family vacation destination,” Mr. Zehnder stated. “The focus on family really hasn’t changed since the founding.”

One household, the Murins of Irwin, Pa., has been planning its Thanksgiving journey to Frankenmuth for the reason that summer time. Emily Murin and her husband, Jonathan, love the Christmas season (“It is the one thing that bonds us together,” she stated) and wished to take their daughters, Gianna, 5, and Gabriella, 4, on a vacation journey in their new camper trailer.

They selected Frankenmuth over Dollywood, in Tennessee, as a result of the drive to Michigan can be on flatter terrain. They plan to reach on Wednesday, eat Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, store at Bronner’s on Friday and possibly match in a journey to Splash Village on Saturday earlier than heading residence, the place 4 adorned Christmas timber await their return.

Ms. Murin polled Facebook teams run by Frankenmuth followers earlier than deciding the place to eat.

“I posted on the local groups to say, ‘OK, well, which one is it going to be: Zehnder’s or Bavarian Inn? Who is the winner?’ And it was actually a very, very dead heat,” she stated. “So it came down to reservation time.”

When the Murins sit right down to Thanksgiving dinner on the Bavarian Inn, they’ll discover a fashion of eating that hasn’t modified all that a lot since Mrs. Zehnder started her profession as a waitress in 1937.

Even so, not all diners are certain by custom. “You’d be surprised,” Mrs. Zehnder stated, “by how many steaks we serve on Thanksgiving.”

Recipe: Butterhorns