The Bavarian Inn
150 full-time employees; in-season up to 1,000
The secret to success for The Bavarian Inn seems likes something so obvious, but yet something that some companies can't seem to figure out how to do well -- pay attention to what customers want and respond.
The Inn, which dates back to 1888 and has had several name changes, started out as a boardinghouse for the lumbermen in the Frankenmuth area, about 100-miles north of Detroit. As the lumber trade started to move away from the area, the boardinghouse changed to a restaurant that promoted "all-you-can-eat" chicken dinners, says president William Zehnder.Zehnder, 64, says his family purchased the property 53 years ago (his parents used to come for the chicken dinners) and started to expand, beginning with a Bavarian-style hotel addition in homage to the area's German roots. Since then the Inn has expanded exponentially. With more than $31 million in annual revenue, the property includes a separate lodge, swimming pools, shopping and a water park. Today the restaurant seats 1,200 guests in 12 dining rooms and serves over 600,000 meals annually. "The business always needed to adapt to what the market was dictating," Zehnder says. "We were basically following what our customers saying and adding on to what they liked." Another key to the company's success -- a total of 10 members of Zehnder's family are actively involved in managing and operating the business, including his 91-year-old mother, who still works in the kitchen. "There's always a couple of them pretty much on site at all times," Zehnder says. "It's one of the real strengths we have as a business and as a family." But with a property as big as the resort, one has to wonder if the family ever considered that it over-expanded. Zehnder easily answers the question, saying that while not everything was an automatic success, those decisions haven't been regretted. "You just got to keep trying things and seeing what works and maybe not spend too much money on it initially," he says. "Our challenge and my children and nieces and nephews' challenge is to figure out what the needs are going to be going forward. We need to find it before everyone else does." Zehnder says the resort's recent addition of a water park was an example of filling the need. "We caught that wave on the upswing, so to speak, and are able to capture a lot of guests," he says. One of the biggest priorities for the family is being able to create memorable opportunities for other families -- and that especially means competing in today's digital-centric world. "We're not interested in selling," Zehnder says. "We're interested in continuing our legacy and continuing to create enjoyable experiences for our guests and for our team members."