Two of The Most Successful Restaurants in America Are In One Tiny Midwest Town
How to take over the world, one family-style chicken dinner at a time
Each year, a trade publication most people do not read puts out a fascinating list most people are not talking about—unless, of course, they happen to be in the restaurant business, in which case they will likely be looking for this list, published by Restaurant Business Magazine, which compiles a list of the year’s most impressive restaurants. Not by critical popularity, or pedigree, or any of that nebulous stuff—this time, it’s all about profitability, which is not something you necessarily take for granted, in the restaurant business. The Top 100 Independents list throws a spotlight on a diverse group of non-chains across America, united by their unique talent for bringing in stunning amounts of money.
As you might imagine, many of these restaurants are in places where people tend to get loose with the purse strings—here is Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach (#2), there is everything the Tao Group ever opened (well, pretty much), not to mention pretty much any steakhouse in Las Vegas. Two entries on the list stand out, due to their otherness—both are in the same town, Frankenmuth, Michigan, a place you will likely have never heard of, unless you grew up or now live in a very specific subregion of the Midwest. Not only are both restaurants in the same town, they are directly across the street from one another, and both have rocketed into the restaurant profitability hall of fame selling the exact same thing—honest, old-timey chicken dinners.
Proving that it is not the size of the average check, but rather how many people you can get to show up to your door, there is Zehnder’s, at #64 on the list, ringing up nearly $16 million in sales and serving nearly one million customers, to the tune of about $17 at a pop. Across the street, the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn, #69, served about 850,000 people over the last year, bringing in slightly more—still, a lowly $18—on average. The two restaurants are in an elite club on this already elite list, along with the likes of Junior’s in New York’s Times Square—restaurants that manage, year after year, to do exceedingly well, without charging Gibsons of Chicago money.
Frankenmuth is a curious place, a small town of barely 5,000 people, out in the farm fields between the faded industrial burgs of Flint and Saginaw, a town that manages to draw one of the larger tourism crowds in a state that’s pretty good at enticing people to go play tourist. Settled in the mid-1800’s by German Lutherans, many among the original group of settlers hailing from the same part of Bavaria, Frankenmuth has long been a place of hospitality, getting its first hotel (and its first brewery) quite early on. It was not until the mid twentieth-century, however, that Frankenmuth—the Frankenmuth you see now, its main drag tricked out, movie set-like, in an effort to pay tribute to the settlers’ Bavarian origins—became a bona fide tourist attraction. (It was at that time that the town got its very first year-round Christmas store, too.)
In today’s Frankenmuth, there are all sorts of things you can do, mostly revolving around shopping and eating, though there is a pretty cool indoor water park, too—the town is an easy day trip for millions of people, many a suburban Detroiter can be here in roughly an hour. There is that Christmas store, Bronner’s, which over time has grown to become one of the world’s largest of its kind, there’s cheese, there’s fudge, there is an extremely serious and quite good sausage maker, Kern’s, where you can pick up leberkäse and headcheese by the pound. And yes—most decidedly—there is beer, the focal point, quite naturally, of the town’s annual Oktoberfest, which they will proudly tell you is one of the only (if not the only) Oktoberfest on this side of the pond to have been dubbed authentic by the mayor of Munich—that’s Munich, Germany.
For most people, the Frankenmuth experience is not complete without a stop for the chicken dinners that have, for generations now, kept the town on the map; it is estimated that 850 tons of chicken will be served here this year. There is Zehnder’s, on the site of the town’s first hotel, and then, directly across the street, there is the Epcot-worthy Bavarian Inn, the modern incarnation of a hotel that was built a few decades later. Both properties are owned by members of the Zehnder family, but at the Bavarian Inn, you’ll still run a chance of bumping into Dorothy Zehnder, who just turned 97 this week, on her way to or from the kitchen; her cookbook is on sale in the gift shop, along with the cheese breads and the preserves and every kind of knick-knack you can imagine.
Both restaurants have their charms, and—quite clearly—their respective followers, but on a recent visit, for the purposes of eating multiple fried chicken dinners, a clear winner emerged in the Bavarian Inn. Dorothy and her late husband William Jacob, known to all as Tiny, were largely responsible for reimagining not only the modest, and by then nearly historic hotel property they purchased in 1950, but the town itself—the work that they put into the Inn (the themed dining rooms and lederhosen-wearing servers are truly Epcot-worthy) ended up inspiring so many others to get the town to where it is today, appearance-wise, but in the end, it’s about the food, and, well, the food at the Bavarian Inn is very good.
The chicken is the chicken—ask a member of the Zehnder family and they’ll tell you, there isn’t much difference in the recipe being used on both sides of the street, a recipe that apparently goes back in the town for roughly a century. The Bavarian Inn takes fresh, never frozen birds, parboiling them whole before dragging the pieces, ever so gently, through a flour and cracker crust coating—think light dusting, not batter dip. The chicken is fried for just three minutes, and the end result, while simple and traditional, is the kind of good you won’t quickly forget. But that’s just the beginning, there are all of the side dishes to consider—the mashed potatoes, the gravy and noodle soups made from the chicken stock, coleslaw, homemade bread, stuffing, and on it goes—all an essential part of the family-style experience. As one of the Zehnder’s recently explained, when asked why the eagle-eyed diner might favor the cooking at the Bavarian Inn: “We’ve still got Mom.”
How to order in Frankenmuth
At both restaurants, Zehnder’s and the Bavarian Inn, you can opt for an all-you-can-eat, family-style chicken dinner, and you should do so, provided you have enough family members to help you do justice to the array of side dishes that will come with your meal, from salad and coleslaw, all the way to stollen and ice cream. In a concession to the modern ways, however, it is possible not only to sit down to a more modest meal in the restaurant, but also get a chicken dinner to go—at the Bavarian Inn, they’ll even deliver your meal to you curbside; just call ahead.