One of Al Zehnder’s earliest memories is standing on a milk crate peeling cucumbers in the kitchen of his family’s restaurant. He was 7 or 8 years old at the time, pitching in with his sisters, Martha and Susan, at the family business. Fast forward more than 50 years, and the CEO of Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth is now 60.
His business has grown to include the largest family restaurant in the country, lodging, water parks, a golf course and retail shops. “Our whole focus as a company has been to develop a four-season family vacation destination, and a big part of that has been our entry into the indoor water park hotel concept which has been very successful,” Zehnder says. Zehnder and his sisters are the third generation of family to work at the historic travel destination founded by his grandfather, and some fourth-generation members have come on board to help keep the tradition alive. The company’s history dates to 1928, when Zehnder’s grandparents, William and Emilie Zehnder, purchased the New Exchange Hotel in Frankenmuth. Today, the restaurant, which serves its iconic all-you-can-eat, family style chicken dinner, has nine dining rooms that can seat 1,500 people and serves nearly 1 million meals a year.
The establishment is the centerpiece of Frankenmuth, a Bavarian-themed town that draws more than 3 million visitors a year for events including the Bavarian Festival, Oktoberfest and Zehnder’s Snowfest, featuring the best snow and ice carvers in the world.
Living history The family opened the hotel and restaurant on Mother’s Day in 1929 and served 312 guests for $1 each. The Great Depression was difficult on the family business, and on the worst of days the receipts were 7 cents for a single cigar. After World War II, however, the business grew rapidly, and eventually, Al’s father, Eddie, and his uncle, William “Tiny” Zehnder Jr., purchased the hotel from their siblings. Today, William Zehnder Jr.’s side of the family operates the Bavarian Inn Restaurant and the Bavarian Inn Lodge, also popular tourist destinations, while Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth is operated by Zehnder, who serves as chairman and CEO; his sister, Susan Zehnder, who serves as vice president of human resources; his sister, Martha Zehnder Shelton, who serves as chief financial officer; Martha’s husband, John Shelton, who serves as vice president of sales and marketing; and William Parlberg, the first nonfamily president in the company’s history. Although Parlberg is not family, he is intimately familiar with the business he started working at as a dishwasher in his youth.
“It’s a cultural expectation that to be in a leadership position, you’ve come up through the ranks and proven yourself,” he says. Together, the leadership team has overseen the growth of the company into a major tourist destination investing in expansions and new lines of business. The company added the Frankenmuth Golf and Country Club in 1984, a nine-hole course that was rebuilt into The Fortress, an 18-hole championship course in 1992. Also in 1984, Zehnder’s expanded its retail baked goods line and retail sales area to allow visitors to take home the signature breads and desserts. In 1988, Zehnder’s purchased a nearby hotel, turning it into Zehnder’s Splash Village in 2005, featuring 20,000 square feet of indoor water park. The indoor water entertainment has been such a success that Zehnder’s is building 29,000 square feet of additional water park space under an enclosed atrium with a retractable roof, the only one like it in the Midwest. It will feature a four-story, four-person raft ride, a zero-entry pool — in which the floor of the pool gradually slopes from the deck into the water, becoming deeper with each step in the manner of a natural beach — full of water activities, private cabanas and 32 additional rooms with a panoramic view of the new water park. FirstMerit Bank is partnering with Zehnder’s on the project.
“We’re very thankful we have a great relationship with FirstMerit, and that we have put a great team together with them,” Zehnder says.
A Family Affair
From its humble start, the company has grown to employ more than 700 people in a town of 4,000. It benefits from the community’s strong work ethic which is reinforced by the family every day. Zehnder feels the responsibility of being a large employer in his community, where family members and neighbors count on the business for their livelihood. “We were taught at an early age we have a responsibility to our community, so it’s something I grew up with,” Zehnder says. “It’s not something that slaps you in the face when you’re 30. You know what’s expected as you grow up in the business.” Zehnder received his 45-year service pin this year, but that doesn’t tell the full story. “I’ve been paid for 45 years, but I started working much earlier than that,” he says. He joined the family business full time in 1976 after graduating from college. He understood from an early age it doesn’t matter if your name is on the building; there is still work to be done. “When your life is wrapped up in the business, sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and unclog a toilet or seat guests or plan for major expansion. It’s all part of the job description,” Zehnder says. The company looks for a similar work ethic when hiring employees from the community. “Our secret is to hire great people and allow them to grow in our company and treat people like they’d want to be treated,” he says. “All those silly little clichés somehow seem to work for us.” Ultimately, the goal of growth is to give families more reasons to visit Frankenmuth and Zehnder’s. “Splash Village has been a great way to introduce families to our flagship restaurant and to provide a place for families to spend time with each other,” Zehnder says. “It’s great to see the happy families here. That’s a rewarding result for all the work we do.”