It’s difficult to separate the Zehnder name from the successes of Frankenmuth, so deeply intertwined is the surname with the popularity of Michigan’s Little Bavaria. However, city residents are going to have to accept sharing the familiar family with the state’s other 9.99 million residents.
Zehnder family matriarch Dorothy Zehnder was named into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in an Oct. 15 ceremony in Lansing. Zehnder, co-founder and co-owner of Frankenmuth’s Bavarian Inn and the many other businesses in the family enterprise, was inducted along with fellow Class of 2020 nominees Najah Bazzy, founder of Zaman International; Dr. Glenda Price, the first African American president of Marygrove College; Martha Teichner a “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent; Liz Jackson, a founding member of the Trade Union Leadership Council; and Ruth Westbrook, who was part of NASA’s Apollo 11 project.
“I am very humbled and honored to be included with these other inductees,” Zehnder said. “This is a very big honor for me and for the Bavarian Inn Zehnder family. There are so many other deserving people. My family keeps telling me I am deserving of this, too. Well, I don’t know about that, but I am very appreciative to be recognized and inducted this year.”
The 98-year-old author of three cookbooks remains an active part in the day-to-day operations at the Bavarian Inn, working six days each week and only taking Mondays to herself. She typically arrives at the establishment at 9 a.m. to check on the food preparation efforts.
“Food quality is extremely important, and I make sure everything in the coolers and throughout the restaurant is the best it can be,” she said. “I will check the reservations, operations, our bakery, meat department, etc., going through the different departments in the kitchen.”
Yet her favorite part of the job remains interacting with guests. When the Bavarian Inn was shuttered for three months due to COVID-19, Zehnder missed the camaraderie of engaging with customers and staff. It’s why she has no plans of retiring, even though her 99th birthday is around the corner on Dec. 1.
“I am my own boss. I can come and go as I like. I do things I like to do,” she said. “For example, I don’t enjoy doing office work, so I don’t do that anymore. I enjoy teaching young people how to work. It makes me very happy when someone tells me about a recipe they tried in one of my cookbooks. I always ask if it turned out.”
Being inducted into the hall of fame officially puts Zehnder in a position of being a role model for others, especially to young girls. And that dedicated and determined work ethic she showcases each day is something Zehnder acquired from her own role model.
“My mother had the largest impact on my life,” Zehnder said. “She taught us how to work hard and have a good work ethic. I am thankful for my German Christian upbringing. Mom liked to work, and she liked to play. She always had sayings that my family and the team members at the inn have heard me say many times: ‘Once a job is first begun, never leave it till it’s done. Be the labor big or small, do it well or not at all.’”
Strong women of today can learn a lot by studying the paths of those who have come before — and that is especially true with the hall of fame’s Class of 2020, said Carolyn Cassin, president and CEO of Michigan Women Forward, which manages the hall of fame.
“These amazing honorees have conquered so many obstacles and accomplished so much throughout their lives,” Cassin said. “We are proud to salute them and want to be sure their stories are told.”
Zehnder’s story can be seen throughout the city of Frankenmuth. From the architecture to the overall Germanic theme of the city, it’s a story about faith, belief and hard work that she crafted with her late husband.
“We were a great team,” she said. “We worked hard, and my family continues to work hard so all of us in Frankenmuth can be successful. I am proud to live and work in Frankenmuth.”
As for her 99th birthday, Dec. 1 falls on a Tuesday this year — meaning Zehnder will be where she normally can be found, and grateful and appreciative visitors can give her their well wishes in person.
“I will be here at the inn,” she said.