Although the Bavarian Inn Lodge and Restaurant in Frankenmuth, Mich., is well known for many things, two, in particular, stand out: its famous chicken dinners and its ubiquitous German theme, evidenced in its décor, architecture, menu items, and the clothing worn by staff every day. What many people might not know, however, is that the Zehnder family has owned this business for more than 63 years.
The Bavarian Inn family has beaten the statistics; after all, it’s rare for a family business to succeed past the second generation. They have nine family members currently in senior management, including four from the fourth generation. In addition, at age 90, matriarch Dorothy Zehnder still works in the kitchen six days a week. As we toured the facility, we saw her petite figure hovering determinedly over two bins. Too many brown bits of potato had made their way through to the sorting station, and she was diligently separating them, determined that not one less-than-perfect part would make it into her food. This is the type of behavior that springs from their family motto: “Our family serving your family.”
In fact, the Zehnders claim that their real business advantage comes from being a family involved in their business on a daily basis. Bill Zehnder, who runs the Bavarian Inn Restaurant and retail operation with his wife and two of his daughters, explains, “You have to decide if you’re running a business-first business or a family-first business. Is it an investment or an heirloom?”
Judy Zehnder, who manages the Bavarian Inn Lodge, agrees that family is a strong foundation for a successful enterprise. She says the other part of the equation is having a good time at work. “If you can enjoy yourself, your guests can, too.” It helps that Judy doesn’t think of work in the traditional sense that she’ll do it begrudgingly until she can relax in retirement. “I always tell my kids, ‘I’ll never sell, and I’ll work as long as I’m physically able. I love what I do.’”
The Bavarian Inn family’s aim is to “create enjoyable experiences.” That begins with little gestures, like saying hello when you pass others in the hallways and always making eye contact. While we toured the Lodge, Judy greeted everyone, treating the housekeeping staff with genuine friendliness and calling them by name. This attention to personal detail is how the Bavarian Inn differentiates itself.
In order to identify and enforce their values, the Zehnders created a family creed. This 10-page document explores the family’s mission and purpose, and it sets the tone for what’s expected of the next generation. Like most things in life, the little things really are the big things, and the Zehnders recognize this. Their emphasis on personal attention in everything they do creates a special atmosphere that guests respond to.
Judy shared a touching example with us. One of their guests is a young woman who has always visited the Bavarian Inn Lodge with her family on the weekend before Thanksgiving. This year, they’re returning in a big way — she’s getting married at the Lodge on the same weekend she always visits. Her father is very excited that their wedding venue will have waterslides for everyone to enjoy. This is just one story of many for a Lodge that boasts a 60 percent return rate with all their guests.
The Zehnder’s family creed also identifies a few of the best practices that help them sustain a successful family business. These include:
- Communication is key. “It’s important to have frequent discussions about your purpose and your goals,” says Judy. “You have to be in agreement to move forward together.” The Zehnder family meets twice a month to keep the discussion going.
- Fair versus equal. “Parents often struggle with treating siblings the same,” says Bill. “A family business has to decide if non-working members’ ideas carry the same weight as working owners. In business, you have to remember that what’s fair isn’t always what’s equal.”
- Work outside the family business. The Zehnders encourage their children to find jobs outside of the business after college before returning to work with the family. They believe it’s an opportunity to gain practical experience and develop maturity outside of the Bavarian Inn organization. Then, when the children do come back, they have a more rounded perspective and a new appreciation.
- Green and growing. Bill says, “We figure if you’re not green and growing, then you’re ripe and rotting.” What’s important is remaining up to date with business practices so you’re constantly improving.
In order to stay green and growing, one practice that the Bavarian Inn family has been putting a lot of effort into for many years is the use of local products. This has resonated with the growing local-food movement. The Bavarian Inn Restaurant uses more Michigan agricultural products than anywhere in the world. This year they used 50 tons of Blue Hubbard squash. Since the founding family members were farmers, the family has a sincere appreciation for knowing where their food comes from and how it’s grown. To celebrate this local food-to-plate awareness, each year they host a Purely Michigan dinner showcasing fresh and local foods and beverages.
Whether they’re hosting a family or business gathering, a yearly festival, or celebrating Oktoberfest in true German style, the Bavarian Inn’s hospitality is evident. Every day each family member, along with 1,000 staff members, strives to “create enjoyable experiences” for their guests. The Zehnders don’t believe in calling them customers. After all, as Judy says, “They are guests in our home. When you’re the owner, the business is your home.”
More About the Bavarian Inn Lodge and Restaurant
- The Bavarian Inn Lodge is the most popular hotel in Frankenmuth, which explains its nearly 500 positive reviews on tripadvisor.com.
- The Lodge is expanding with two new waterslides in time for Thanksgiving.
- The Bavarian Inn Restaurant has an impressive 12 dining rooms for family and business gatherings, and there are 70 retail shops at Frankenmuth River Place and near the premises.
- The Restaurant and Lodge host more than 140 wedding parties each year. In 2012 the Bavarian Inn Lodge was selected as a winner in The Knot’s “Best of Weddings.”
- To visit “Michigan’s little Bavaria,” call 1.800.BAVARIA, or go to bavarianinn.com.