Family restaurant’s beloved pie recipes are 30-year tradition in small Michigan town

FREELAND, MI — There’s a popular family-owned restaurant in a small Michigan town that has been serving made-from-scratch pies to loyal customers for 30 years.

From the best-selling and eye-catching coconut cream with its lofty meringue topping to fall favorite pumpkin crunch, Shirley Zeilinger’s recipes, many of them committed to memory by the kitchen staff, are still in use daily at Riverside Family Restaurant. On an average morning, 30 pies in various 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 its pie recipes, which belonged to the late Zeilinger, who founded the restaurant with her daughter, Chris Graebner-Frank, are treasured by her family, who keep the business going, and the customers who keep coming back for more.

“When my mom was alive, she would make 100 pies. She could do 100 pies by herself. She’d bake through the night,” said business owner Graebner-Frank, who operates Riverside with two of her sons. “And now I work every bit as hard as my mom.”

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, they and the rest of the staff at Riverside work long hours to ensure families in their community and throughout mid-Michigan can enjoy grandma Zeilinger’s pies at their holiday celebrations.

“We limp out of here on Wednesday night exhausted,” Graebner-Frank said.

It’s a lot of work, but she loves it.

“We’re really lucky.”

‘Freeland needs to have a little 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 throughout 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 one time or another.

Michael Graebner, who was just three weeks old when the restaurant opened, doesn’t know a life 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 that his family’s business has grown in conjunction with Freeland.

Graebner-Frank said Riverside filled a void Zeilinger saw all those years ago.

Graebner-Frank recalls his mom saying, “Freeland needs to have a little restaurant where you can go and have a cup of coffee and some bean soup and a piece of pie.”

She admits she was initially skeptical of her mother’s plans to open a restaurant. At the time, she was recovering from surgery, a mother to 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’s so glad she did.

“Now, I’m thankful that my mom had the vision,” she said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful job. …This place and the customers and the employees are way more than a business, way more than a way to make a living.”

A portrait of Zeilinger, “the famous pie lady,” is displayed in an engraved silver-colored frame near the restaurant’s front door, and a letter to customers printed on the front cover 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 caring for her grandchildren, gardening, or riding her bike.

“That was kind of her therapy and her enjoyment, to be in the kitchen,” Graebner-Frank said. “She was really happy working in the kitchen, making pies.”

Through the years Zeilinger’s family and the Riverside staff have remained true to their 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 and support us; we have to support them,” Graebner-Frank remembers her mother saying.

Pies, pies and more pies

Riverside offers more than 20 varieties of pie. Customers can enjoy a slice with their lunch or dinner or purchase a whole pie to take home and share.

“Everything’s scratch-made in-house,” Michael Graebner said. “Our big sellers are coconut cream, banana cream, pumpkin, apple… We have a list that goes on and on.”

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

“Rarely is there any of that left on the plate,” he said.

Of course, Thanksgiving is peak pie time at Riverside. In the days leading up to the holiday, the staff works long hours, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to customers during the day and baking hundreds of pies at night. Graebner-Frank said it makes for “an incredibly chaotic week.”

“The week of Thanksgiving, we’ll sell 500 pies,” she said. “When we’re in the throws of it, I think, ‘Why do we do this?’ But then, when you’re actually handing the customers the pies, and you see how happy you made them, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, this is why we do it.’”

Graebner-Frank said she feels lucky to have watched her family business grow these past 30 years and attributes its success to its loyal customers and dedicated employees.

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

When asked what her mother might think of the family’s restaurant today, Graebner-Frank replied, “I think she’d be proud beyond words.”

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