Can you imagine Life In Michigan without Frankenmuth, Michigan? We can’t, so when Jennifer Ring contacted us about writing a guest post about Frankenmuth we said, “Yes!” Thanks to our first guest blogger, we now have a taste of it. Thank you Jennifer for your lovely post. We hope you’ll be back.
Author Bio: Jennifer Ring is a photoblogger living in Florida’s Tampa Bay area, home to some of the best beaches in the state. She writes about Florida festivals & events, arts & culture, dining & nightlife, and outdoors & nature on her blog, Florida Illustrated: flillustrated.com.
I’ve been begging my family to take me to Frankenmuth for the past few years. As I started speaking German, it seems my pleas could no longer be ignored. Frankenmuth, Michigan, also known as “Michigan’s Little Bavaria,” is a German town – founded in 1845 by fifteen German immigrants from Franconia, Bavaria. It is home to “the world’s greatest chicken” and “the world’s largest Christmas store,” and I am happy to say that I have now experienced both of these Frankenmuth treasures.
Frankenmuth is a popular day trip for those living in the Detroit metro area. People usually go for two reasons: (1) the shopping and (2) the chicken. And when it comes to shopping and chicken in Frankenmuth, Bronner’s and Zehnders are king. Back in the 1950’s, Bronner’s Christmas Store, Zehnder’s Restaurant, and the Bavarian Inn Restaurant (also owned by members of the Zehnder family) shaped Frankenmuth into what it is today: a great place to visit for shopping and family-style chicken dinners.
Our first stop was Bronner’s, the world’s largest Christmas store. Bronner’s Christmas store was established in 1945 by Wally Bronner, an American man of German descent born in Frankenmuth, MI in 1927. Inspired by the German-American town in which he lived, Bronner designed his Christmas market with a Bavarian theme, complete with German signage, German-made ornaments, and a Silent Night Memorial chapel.
[Weihnachtsmarkt is a German word that translates to Christmas Market in English. Christmas markets in Germany are usually outdoor affairs conducted in the month of December. The first Christmas market in the world was held in Munich, Germany back in 1310.}
At 320,000 square feet, Bronner’s Christmas Store is so expansive I had to take a couple of panoramic photos to get it all in, and I still failed to capture the grandiosity of the place. All the standard items were there, but the amazing thing is how much of everything is present. Where a normal Christmas store might have 20 different nutcrackers to choose from, Bronner’s will have 200. Just take the image in your mind of a typical Christmas store and multiple it by ten – then you will have an idea of what it’s like to shop at Bronner’s Christmas Store. There are so many Christmas lights, rumor has it they spend $30,000 a day on electricity (I don’t believe this). They actually spend about $1,250/day on electricity according to the Bronner’s website, which is still pretty unbelievable.
I was most taken in by the sheer number and variety of ornaments for sale. It was like the Congressional library of Christmas ornaments (there is no such thing), with each different wall and shelf devoted to a different category of ornament. There were Santa ornaments, reindeer ornaments, food ornaments, team spirit ornaments, ornaments from all over the world, and pretty much any other type of ornament you can imagine. Bronner’s is the perfect place to find the perfect ornament for everyone you know. If Santa shopped at a Christmas store, then he would shop at this Christmas store. In fact, Santa does shop at Bronner’s Christmas store. Several Santas shop at this store. Either that or there were an awful lot of older men present bearing an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus.
I picked up an ornament for myself, one for a friend, and one for my German teacher who is actually Polish. Checking out, the cashier asked where I was from. I said “Florida,” and she replied, “You’re here for our first snow.” As I walked outdoors into the cold, a wintry mix was coming down that I refused to call snow. By the time we got to Zehnder’s it was truly snowing.
Zehnder’s Restaurant started out as the Exchange Hotel and Restaurant in 1856 before it was purchased by William and Emilie Zehnder in 1928. Unlike most of Frankenmuth’s businesses, Zehnder’s is not German-themed. William Zehnder was a big fan of George Washington, and remodeled his restaurant in the Colonial American style of Mount Vernon. The cuisine is meant to be Colonial American as well, which explains how fried chicken dinners became their specialty.
When you order a family-style chicken dinner at Zehnder’s, you get a lot more than just chicken. The meal begins with a homemade noodle soup or onion soup, bread, homemade preserves, cottage cheese, coleslaw, and garlic toast with chicken liver paté and cheese spread. The onion soup was the best I’ve ever had, and my dining companions raved about the noodle soup.
Once you’re done with your appetizers, they bring out the chicken with stuffing, mashed potatoes & gravy, egg noodles, and a vegetable. By this time in the dinner I was starting to notice a pattern: the chicken flavor was somehow elevating practically every dish on the table. I could taste the homemade chicken stock in the onion soup, the stuffing, the chicken gravy, and even the egg noodles. Chicken, in some form, seemed to be the special ingredient in everything. The fried chicken itself was perfectly cooked with a delicious cracker-like coating. It was like Thanksgiving dinner, but with chicken instead of turkey. And just like at Thanksgiving, you are welcome to have seconds because the family-style chicken dinners here are all-you-can-eat. For dessert, there is ice cream or sherbet.
Across the street, the Bavarian Inn Restaurant is also owned by members of the Zehnder family and has a similar deal, with a few exceptions: (1) the Bavarian Inn Restaurant has a German theme as opposed to Zehnder’s Colonial American theme, (2) The Bavarian Inn Restaurant has more German menu items than Zehnder’s Restaurant, and (3) Although family-style chicken dinners are very popular here, you can also order a family-style Bavarian dinner at the Bavarian Inn Restaurant.
Frankenmuth is both a German town and a Midwestern small town all rolled up in one. Over the years, it has become every bit as American as it is German. The merging of these two cultures here is a beautiful example of America the great melting pot. So don’t be afraid to spread some Michigan-made preserves on your German Stollen bread. It’s delicious.
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