A Swiss-born mother and son elevate Frankenmuth’s dining scene at The Station 100
BY MARKHAM HEID
Barbara Romer may be the most unlikely restaurateur in America. The Swiss native is owner and culinary director at The Station 100, a fine-dining spot in Frankenmuth that specializes in prime-grade steaks paired with European wines. But when she first opened for business back in 2013, Romer served little more than pastries and coffee. The Old Christmas Station, as her place was then called, was primarily a museum dedicated to Romer’s collection of antique Christmas ornaments.
“I was born and raised in a town called Winterthur, which is about 20 miles from Zurich, and I’ve always loved old things,” Romer says. Christmas is an important holiday in Switzerland — one that for her symbolizes harmony — and her interest in ornaments began after a friend mentioned that she wanted to own an antique piece. Romer duly set out to find one for her, and in the process became enchanted herself. She read a book on antique ornaments and started buying pieces. Eventually she connected with a collector’s club in the United States and started traveling to the U.S. to acquire ornaments and meet with club members who shared her passion. Roughly 20 years after she bought her first ornament, Romer’s collection had grown so extensive — hundreds and hundreds of antique pieces — that she wanted to open a museum to showcase her ornaments.
“Our steaks are where we go all in,” he says. “That’s where the magic happens.” – Elia Brunner
At first she planned to do so in Switzerland. “But my daughter was in the U.S. as an exchange student, and she visited Frankenmuth with her host family,” Romer says. The Christmas-themed town seemed like the ideal place for her mother’s museum. After a 2010 visit, Romer agreed. She purchased the town’s former train station — a 100-year-old building that had been vacant for years — and soon moved herself and her two youngest sons to America. “It was difficult to leave our home behind, but my children were young and excited to try new things,” she says. “They told me, ‘Let’s go! Let’s do it.’”
After extensive renovations to the old station building, Romer opened her museum and cafe. Although she had no formal culinary or restaurant experience, she made all the food served at the cafe — mostly cakes and pastries. “When I was growing up, I didn’t know what processed food was,” she says. “We always made everything we ate, so I had a lot of experience cooking and baking from scratch.” It didn’t take long for her to realize that her business model was in need of some tweaks. “Our guests were a lot more interested in her recipes and her food, rather than in her collection,” says Elia Brunner, 27, who is one of Romer’s sons and current manager of The Station 100 and its wine program.
Gradually, the small cafe at The Old Christmas Station expanded into a popular full-service restaurant. Meanwhile, Brunner was studying hospitality management and acquiring experience at hotels and restaurants in Chicago, Zurich, Spain, and East Africa. He also trained as a sommelier in Switzerland. By 2018, the mother and son decided that it was time to put Brunner’s education to use back in Frankenmuth. Two years later — after thousands of hours of planning, extensive renovations, and one pandemic lock-down — The Old Christmas Station reopened as The Station 100.
“Our goal was to establish ourselves as a fine-dining destination in a geographical location where that doesn’t really exist,” Brunner says. The Station 100’s prime steaks and chops are served with gels, foams, and other components made using molecular gastronomy techniques that Brunner encountered during his time studying and working in other parts of the world — including a stint at Chicago’s then Michelin-starred Roister, helmed by star chef Grant Achatz. “Our steaks are where we go all in,” he says. “That’s where the magic happens.”
But people who loved the old station restaurant can still find classic European dishes on the menu, including an Austrian goulash, a German wiener schnitzel, and a traditional “Cazimir” curry rice dish that is a staple in Switzerland.
In 2021, The Station 100 was recognized by Wine Spectator magazine for its extensive wine cellar. “We have one of the largest wine menus in the state — more than 300 wines,” Brunner says. His list prioritizes Old World wines, including many that he says would be difficult or impossible to find elsewhere in Michigan. “You have to have connections with importers and distributors in Europe to even have access, and we were able to form those relationships,” he says.
The name “The Station 100” is a nod to the restaurant’s century-old history and its address at 100 S. Main Street. But Brunner says it’s also an acknowledgment of his team’s commitment to quality. “What we want is to give 100 percent to every single guest,” he says.For her part, Romer seems almost bemused by the fact that she now owns and operates an award-winning fine-dining restaurant — and in the United States, no less. “I’m such an oddball — I do everything the crazy way,” she says. “This has been an adventure — there was no path laid out or handbook we could follow. We just do what we believe is right and we do it the best we can, and it has been extremely rewarding.”
Want to know more about Michigan’s Little Bavaria? Read our Frankenmuth City Guide.