FREELAND, MI – There’s a popular family-owned business in a small Michigan town that has been serving homemade pies to loyal customers for 30 years.
From the best-selling and eye-catching coconut cream with its lofty meringue topping to the fall favorite pumpkin crunch, Shirley Zeilinger’s recipes, many of which are etched in the memory of the kitchen staff, are still used daily at the Riverside Family Restaurant. On an average morning, 30 cakes in different flavors come out of Riverside’s kitchen. And for Thanksgiving, they bake many more, just like Zeilinger used to do.
Riverside Family Restaurant, located at 8295 Midland Road in Freeland, on the banks of the Tittabawassee River about 15 miles northwest of Saginaw, is a community institution. And the cake recipes, which belonged to the late Zeilinger, who founded the restaurant with her daughter, Chris Graebner-Frank, are cherished by her family, who keep the business going, and the customers who keep coming back for more.
“When my mother was alive, she made 100 cakes. She could make 100 pies on her own. She would bake all night,” says business owner Graebner-Frank, who runs Riverside with two of her sons. “And now I work just as hard as my mother.”
The mother and daughter opened Riverside Family Restaurant in 1992 and ran it together until Zeilinger died in 2004. Today, Graebner-Frank’s son Michael Graebner is the general manager and her son Patrick Graebner is the accounting manager.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, she and the rest of the Riverside staff work long hours to make sure families in their community and central Michigan can enjoy Grandma Zeilinger’s pies during their holiday season.
“We stumble out of here exhausted on Wednesday night,” said Graebner-Frank.
It’s a lot of work, but she loves it.
“We’re really lucky.”
‘Freeland must have a restaurant’
Riverside Family Restaurant celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. It remains a popular spot for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, serving locals and visitors from all over Michigan.
The restaurant employs between 30 and 40 people, including one who has been there since opening day and several others who have been there for 20 years or more. And since opening, all five of Graebner-Frank’s sons, Zeilinger’s grandsons, have also worked at Riverside at some point.
Michael Graebner, who was just three weeks old when the restaurant opened, doesn’t know life without it, and so do many in his community, he said.
“For the majority of people who live here, this restaurant has always been here,” he said, noting that the family business has grown along with Freeland.
Graebner-Frank said Riverside filled a void that Zeilinger saw all those years ago.
Graebner-Frank recalls his mother saying, “Freeland must have a little restaurant where you can have a cup of coffee, bean soup, and a piece of cake.”
She admits that she was initially skeptical of her mother’s plans to open a restaurant. At the time, she was recovering from surgery, a mother of young children, and studying to become a nurse. Opening and running a small business was never part of her plan.
But despite her reservations, Graebner-Frank agreed. And she is so glad she did.
“Now I’m thankful my mom had the vision,” she said. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful job. …This place and the customers and the employees are much more than a business, much more than a way to make a living.
A portrait of Zeilinger, “the famous cake lady,” is displayed in an engraved silver frame near the front door of the restaurant, and a letter to customers on the front of each menu tells her story.
Driven, humble and sweet, Zeilinger had an incredible work ethic and high standards, her daughter said. When she wasn’t working in the kitchen, she was taking care of her grandchildren, gardening, or riding her bike.
“That was kind of her therapy and her joy of being in the kitchen,” Graebner-Frank said. “She really enjoyed working in the kitchen and making cakes.”
Over the years, Zeilinger’s family and Riverside staff have remained true to her recipes and preferred ways of doing things. They still serve meatloaf on Tuesdays and pot roast on Sundays and use only locally grown sugar in the pies and locally grown beans in the bean soup.
“The farmers come to support us; we have to support them,” Graebner-Frank recalls her mother saying.
Cakes, cakes and more cakes
Riverside offers over 20 varieties of pie. Customers can enjoy a slice with their lunch or dinner or buy a whole pie to take home and share.
“Everything is made in-house,” said Michael Graebner. “Our big sellers are coconut cream, banana cream, pumpkin, apple… We have a list that goes on and on.”
He especially likes the banana cream and pumpkin crunch, which he recommends trying warm with vanilla ice cream and caramel drizzle on top.
“Rarely does any of that stay on the plate,” he said.
Of course, Thanksgiving is peak pie time at Riverside. In the days leading up to the holiday, staff work long hours, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to customers during the day and baking hundreds of cakes at night. Graebner-Frank said it makes for “an incredibly chaotic week.”
“We sell 500 pies the week of Thanksgiving,” she said. “When we’re in the thick of it, I think, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But when you hand over the cakes to the customers, and you see how happy you made them, I think, ‘Oh yes, this is why we do it.’”
Graebner-Frank said she feels fortunate to have seen her family business grow over the past 30 years and attributes the success to her loyal customers and dedicated employees.
“It’s really incredibly humbling to have such a core staff that sticks with you through good times and bad,” she said. “I love this place and the company we’ve created.”
When asked what her mother would think of the family restaurant today, Graebner-Frank replied, “I think she would be unspeakably proud.”
For more information visit www.riversidefamilyrestaurant.com.
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