By Omar Sofradzija
While Judy Zehnder Keller was finishing her undergraduate years at Michigan State University, she had a novel idea for one of her final papers: a pitch to build a full-service hotel in her hometown of Frankenmuth, Michigan, where her family ran an iconic restaurant business and which lacked such a resort.
She saw potential for more. “It was to attract conventions, so that you would have the income of the hotel rooms” to diversify revenue streams beyond a single pot, Zehnder Keller recalled recently. Plus, “it was to provide a feature for Frankenmuth that we didn’t have” at the time.
Her family didn’t enter the hotel industry until many years later. But just one year after Zehnder Keller’s 1967 graduation from what now is the School of Hospitality Business at the Eli Broad College of Business, her clan started the process of evolving Frankenmuth from an occasional dinner stop into a bustling tourist destination that has its place in many a Michigan family vacation to this day.
That began with the launch of the Frankenmuth Cheese Haus, where Zehnder Keller is president and owner, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The store was one of the building blocks of a locally-sprawling family hospitality business which today includes the Bavarian Inn Lodge, the Bavarian Inn Restaurant, the Frankenmuth Gift Shop and other establishments.
“It’s (had) a long history and it’s had a good history, because it’s part of the beginning of Frankenmuth’s tourism industry,” said Zehnder Keller, who was inducted in 2006 as a member of the hospitality school’s Alumni Association Hall of Fame and named one of the school’s 75th Anniversary Year Distinguished Alumni. She is also an honorary faculty member.
Before the Cheese Haus started that shift, Frankenmuth was perhaps best known as a dinner stop for metro Detroiters shuttling to and from their summer cottages up north. The Zehnders’ family restaurant, founded by Zehnder Keller’s grandparents, became a regional legend for its huge, affordable family-style chicken dinners. (The namesake Zehnder’s Restaurant is now owned by another branch of the family.)
“It was my dad’s idea in Frankenmuth that to sustain the guests, customers coming up for our chicken dinners, that what we needed were some shops,” Zehnder Keller said. So her father, William “Tiny” Zehnder, Jr. “bought a grocery store … he remodeled it and called it the Frankenmuth Cheese Haus. That was one of the first stores on Main Street. Of course, now we have many.”
The construction of Interstate 75, once feared to be a bypass past Frankenmuth, instead turbocharged its tourism economy as retail and leisure opportunities to go along with a meal were just an off-ramp away for passers-by.
“Because of the reputation Frankenmuth had because of the chicken dinners … that helped draw people off of that expressway,” Zehnder Keller said. “So the idea of giving them something more to do than just eat chicken dinners was a very good marketing ploy in making people want to come to Frankenmuth because, ‘well, I’m going to do more than just eat.'”
In return, “the restaurants benefited as more shops came on Main Street, because people wanted more for their experience,” she said.
As for the Cheese Haus, it has evolved as well. It offers 160 kinds of cheeses and a wide variety of made-in-house cheeses and cheese spreads. “We make a chocolate cheese that tastes like a Tootsie Roll. We make a strawberry cheese. We make a blueberry cheese. We make a chocolate peanut butter cheese,” among other kinds of unique offerings, Zehnder Keller said.
The Cheese Haus itself is on the move this year, shifting from its original location to a much larger building that will include cheese-cutting stations, wine-and-cheese pairings, craft beer-and-cheese pairings, interactive programs for families, educational stories for children, the ability to view cheese as it is being made, and other features.
“You give them something new and exciting, and then they’re going to want to come back. This (new home for the) Cheese Haus is going to do that, because we’re taking that now up to the next level,” Zehnder Keller said.
Zehnder Keller credits MSU with expanding her horizons and empowering her family. Joining her as MSU alums are her son and daughter; her brother and sister-in-law; and six nieces. “We bleed a lot of green,” she said.
While short in distance, East Lansing was another world away in experiences.
“We came from a very small community. I remember when I went to Michigan State they said there were 42,000 students here. That appealed to me. When I left Frankenmuth there were 1,500 people,” Zehnder Keller said. “I got to meet people who were much different than I was.”
“You see how the world is different … You see how other people do things, and you see what they have available in the cities. You see where larger cities have municipal water parks, they have municipal things to do that you don’t have in a small town,” Zehnder Keller said.
“When you come from a small town and you’re in a family business, you learn there are ways you can expand the family business by not just doing a brick-and-mortar restaurant. You diversify,” she said. “In our situation, we diversified in hospitality because we knew how to do that,” and the skills translated across that business spectrum.
Turns out, it was never just about dinners. Zehnder Keller said the purpose of her family’s businesses are “to create enjoyable experiences” with and between employees and visitors, “in all different kinds of ways, whether it’s shopping, whether it’s eating, whether it’s overnighting, whether it’s miniature golf.”
“They didn’t come to Frankenmuth because of the chicken dinners. They came to Frankenmuth to play and to shop, and now they want to eat the chicken dinner,” she said. “Now, it’s the chicken and the egg.”
Or the chicken dinner and the egg, perhaps.