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The family restaurant’s popular cake recipes have a 30-year tradition in a small Michigan town

FREELAND, MI – In a small Michigan town, there is a popular family-owned restaurant that has been serving homemade pies to loyal customers for 30 years.

From the best-selling and eye-catching Coconut Cream with its rich meringue topping to the popular Fall Pumpkin Crunch, Shirley Zeilinger’s recipes, many of which are remembered by kitchen staff, are still used daily at the Riverside Family Restaurant. On an average morning, 30 different flavored pies come out of Riverside’s kitchen. And for Thanksgiving they bake a lot more, just like Zeilinger used to do.

The Riverside Family Restaurant at 8295 Midland Road in Freeland on the banks of the Tittabawassee River, approximately 15 miles northwest of Saginaw, is a community institution. And his cake recipes, which belonged to the late Zeilinger, who founded the restaurant with her daughter Chris Graebner-Frank, are treasured by her family who run the business and the customers who keep coming back.

“When my mother was alive, she baked 100 cakes. She could bake 100 cakes by herself. It would bake through the night,” said business owner Graebner-Frank, who runs Riverside with two of her sons. “And now I work just as hard as my mother.”

Mother and daughter opened the Riverside Family Restaurant in 1992 and ran it together until Zeilinger’s death in 2004. Today, Graebner-Frank’s son Michael Graebner is the managing director and her son Patrick Graebner is the head of accounting.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, she and the rest of the Riverside staff work long hours to ensure families in their community and throughout Mid-Michigan can enjoy Grandma Zeilinger’s Pies at their holiday celebrations.

“We hobble out here exhausted on Wednesday evening,” said Graebner-Frank.

It’s a lot of work, but she loves it.

“We’re really lucky.”

“Freeland needs a little restaurant”

The Riverside Family Restaurant celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. It remains a popular spot for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, serving locals and visitors from across 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 it opened, 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, can’t live without it, and that’s true for many in his community, he said.

“For the majority of people who live here, this restaurant has always been here,” he said, noting how his family’s business has grown in association 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 go and have a cup of coffee, some bean soup and a piece of cake.”

She admits she was initially skeptical about her mother’s plans to open a restaurant. At the time, she was recovering from surgery, had young children, and was studying to become a nurse. Opening and running a small business was never part of her plan.

Despite her reservations, Graebner-Frank agreed. And she’s so glad she did.

“Now I’m thankful that my mother had the vision,” she said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful job. … This place, the customers and the staff are far more than a business, far more than a way of making a living.”

A portrait of Zeilinger, ‘the famous cake lady’, is displayed in an engraved silver frame near the restaurant’s front door, and a letter to customers printed on the front page 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 her therapy, so to speak, and her pleasure in being in the kitchen,” says Graebner-Frank. “She was really happy working in the kitchen and making cakes.”

Over the years, Zeilinger’s family and Riverside staff have stayed true to their recipes and preferred ways of working. They still serve meatloaf on Tuesdays and pot roast on Sundays, and only use locally grown sugar in the pies and locally grown beans in the bean soup.

“The farmers come and support us; we have to support them,” Graebner-Frank recalls her mother’s words.

Cakes, cakes and more cakes

Riverside offers more than 20 types of cakes. Customers can enjoy a slice with their lunch or dinner, or buy a whole cake to take home and share.

“Everything is homemade,” says Michael Graebner. “Our best sellers are coconut cream, banana cream, pumpkin, apple… We have a list that goes on and on.”

He especially loves the banana cream and pumpkin crunch, which he recommends warm with vanilla ice cream and a caramel drizzle.

“It rarely stays on the plate,” he said.

Of course, Thanksgiving is the main cake time at Riverside. In the days leading up to the holidays, staff work long hours, serving customers breakfast, lunch, and dinner during the day and baking hundreds of cakes at night. Graebner-Frank said it was “an incredibly chaotic week”.

“On Thanksgiving week, we sell 500 cakes,” she said. “When we’re in the middle of it, I think, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But then when you actually give the customers the cakes and see how happy you made them, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s why we’re doing this.’”

Graebner-Frank said she feels fortunate to have seen her family business grow over the past 30 years and credits its success to its loyal customers and dedicated employees.

“Having such a core staff that sticks with you through the good times and the bad is really incredibly humbling,” she said. “I love this place and the business we have created.”

When asked what her mother would think of the family restaurant today, Graebner-Frank replied, “I think she would be incredibly proud.”

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