By Richard Blanchard
June 30, 2011
Stories of life, family, struggles and community - along with some darn good recipes - fill “Come Cook With Me,” published this spring by Dorothy Zehnder of the Bavarian Inn. And it’s the combination of family stories and recipes that have kept sales cooking since the book was introduced in late March.
“I think we are doing very well,” says Dorothy Zehnder, 89, taking a break from duties in the kitchen, on the floor and signing books at the longtime restaurant in Frankenmuth, Mich. “I just signed two of them.”
The book’s first run produced 5,000 copies and sales are about half of that, Zehnder says. The book is filled with 290 recipes from the restaurant and family favorites, and stories of Zehnder’s childhood along with tales of balancing family and business in this mid-Michigan community. Zehnder puts a personal touch on the books by signing every one of them that goes out the door at the Inn.
“I really enjoy the signings - listening to their stories, telling them mine. I’m a people person.”
All the grand children have put a note in the book about working with grandma. Family is big part of this business, with 16 grandchildren working at the restaurant during some time in their lives.
Zehnder tells of a time when four grandchildren, all under 16 were working at the restaurant at the same time. “Somehow they were able to eat lunch together. I’d come up in the office and they would all be sitting there having a great time and sharing stories.”
“Come Cook With Me” is filled with engaging photos and narratives, starting with Zehnder’s early childhood memories on her parents’ farm, her 62-year marriage to husband Tiny, the lean years, her growing family, and the demanding task of bringing the Bavarian Inn into the 21st Century.
She was 16 years old when she began working at what was then the Fischer Hotel. Just a few years later, she and husband Tiny Zehnder and his family bought the restaurant, changed its name and began as the new managers. According to Tiny Zehnder’s autobiography, he and Dorothy started with a huge debt and just three recipes left them by the former owners. In time, Dorothy developed the complete lunch and dinner menus the Bavarian Inn serves today. She says that while several new dishes have been added such as vegetarian and gluten-free items, people’s tastes have been very consistent over the past 60 years.
What keeps bringing people back year after year? It’s the chicken, Zehnder says.
“We are known around the world for our Frankenmuth style chicken”, she says. “750,000 pounds of chicken a year - that’s a lot of chicken.”
Few businesses are prosperous enough to reach third and fourth generation success. Bavarian Inn has. Zehnder is proud of her children, Bill and his wife Karen, Judy and husband Don, and grandchildren Amy, Michael, and William (Woody) who are all involved with the Bavarian Inn.
“Grandma is a really classy lady,” says granddaughter Amy Zehnder Grossi, general manager. “When she goes into a dining room to greet guests, she really lights it up. She can make every person feel special.”
Dorothy Zehnder has been in Bavarian Inn’s kitchen since day one - more than 60 years ago. And that’s where you’ll still find her six days and up to 60-hours a week - an exhausting schedule for a woman half her age. However, her mother always said “get to work, pretty soon you will feel better,” and that’s what has led to the seemingly boundless energy and enjoyment Zehnder takes from working with the Bavarian Inn team.
“I do believe that if there was one thing that really helped me throughout life,” Zehnder said, “it was that I learned how to work hard at an early age. And I learned how to do the job right the first time.”
Restaurants are a tough business. Profit margins are slim, averaging 4 to 6 percent, according to the National Restaurant Association. Keeping even those margins requires staying on top of costs and pricing, Zehnder says. “We still check every day to make sure our product is good and our costs and pricing are in line,” she said. “We check on the price of chicken daily.”
And with prices for food supplies going up, restaurants nationwide must all stay on top of the game. At Bavarian Inn, for example, a typical Sunday 20 years ago would have served 4,000 to 5,000 people. Today that Sunday count is more like 2,500 to 3,000. “I’d say business is down, but we are holding our own,” Zehnder says.
Adhering to a proven, yet simple service standard helps restaurants like Bavarian Inn retain and gain customers, which is even more important in today’s economy.
“You have to satisfy the customer or they won’t return. You have to stay on top of that,” Zehnder advises.
Zehnder’s personality, the family backbone of the business and now her cookbook, are part of the mix that helps draw customers and keep them coming back. The Bavarian Inn, according to its Michigan historical marker, is one of the 10 largest restaurants in the United States. It served a record 5,470 meals on Oct. 9, 1982.
Zehnder still makes the restaurant’s food from scratch using the freshest Michigan products. During the course of a year the Bavarian Inn will serve 1.5 tons of whitefish, 2,650 gallons of sauerkraut, more than 1,500 bushels of apples, 125 tons of potatoes and enough dark beer to float a battleship. That’s in addition, of course, to the 375 tons of chicken, which is mostly from the South.
Zehnder said she tried to retire about 10 years ago, but admits it didn’t quite work out.
“I’m not the Bingo type,” she admitted. “I’ve always believed work should be fun. You’re doing something you like with people you like. Why shouldn’t that be fun? I’ve enjoyed my life here and I am still enjoying it.”
If you are looking for a copy of “Come Cook With Me, ” it can be purchased for $24.99 at the Bavarian Inn’s Bakery and online through the Bavarian Inn website www.bavarianinn.com. Recipes include such favorites as the Bavarian Inn’s Rouladen (beef rolls) and warm German potato salad, Kartoffelkaeseknoedel (potato cheese puffs), cranberry relish and her famous bread pudding.