The Dionise Story…
A lot can change in 99 years and most things do. Frank’s, however, has withstood the test of time. The longest running restaurant in the Zeeland and Holland area has established its name through great food and great community.
Frank and Mary Dionise, recent immigrants from a small village in southern Italy called St. Appolito, arrived to Zeeland, Michigan in 1924. The couple became the newest merchants in Zeeland opening what was orignially called Dionise Confectionary and later Frank’s at 134 East Main. The store featured primarily what was then fresh exotic fruits like oranges, grapefruit, grapes and bananas. As time went by, Frank began making his own ice cream, roasting peanuts, dipping chocolates and selling cigars. Frank and Mary along with their 3 children, Virginia, Jim and Alfonso, moved into the second story living quarters of the building and all helped in the business.
This Italian Catholic family in the Dutch Reformed stronghold of Zeeland was an interesting combination. The Zeeland Dutch may have originally hesitated to stop into the business wondering what a Roman Catholic Italian would be like, but it didn’t take long for a warm relationship to form. Frank had a personality, was upbeat and enjoyed a laugh. No one could ignore Frank’s smiling face, and besides, he even learned a little Dutch. It was a slow, uncertain start but the economy was good, people had money and this low overhead business with little help other than the family took hold. No one, however, dreamed that a devastating depression was only 5 years away.
Along with the depression came Frank and Mary’s newborn twins: Dorothy and Frank Jr. Even with a 7 person family to provide for and business slowing down, Frank hung in there. Many of his customers were getting to high school and cherished Frank’s treats of sundaes, sodas, malted milks and hand dipped chocolate peanuts. On Valentine’s Day, Frank loaded up with heart shaped boxes of chocolates. He was certainly not beyond using his personality and smile to put a little pressure on the boys to buy a box for their girlfriends. Some boys who didn’t even have a girlfriend bought a box and ate the chocolates themselves. For those high school children, Frank’s was the equivalent to Al’s Diner on the television show Happy Days. There was always a rush after school or after a football or basketball game to fight for a seat at Frank’s. The depression still took its toll on business, but Frank’s kept going. There was one day where Frank’s only took in $3.65 in sales but better days were on the horizon.
World War II began and during that time Frank installed the grill and fryer to start selling burgers and fries in addition to his other products. The first place a serviceman came when he had a furlough was to stop at Frank’s. In 1960, Frank and Mary sold the business to Frank Jr. and his wife Pat. Frank Jr. and Pat were both familiar with the business as were Virginia, Jim and Dorothy. With all their hard work, the business grew and remained successful. Frank Jr. was commonly known to his friends as “Froggy” because of his commonly hoarse voice after cheering at a game or loudly talking and joking with friends. Frank Jr. had an engaging personality and was a very interesting person. The restaurant became louder when Frank Jr. walked in and customers would join in on the entertaining exchange. If you went to Frank’s, you know no one would be complimenting you and you could easily become a butt of a joke.
Due to serious health conditions, Frank Jr. had to stop working at Frank’s in the 1980’s and Pat stepped up to take over and do more. Frank Jr. and Pat’s son Dan helped with the daily operations and he was sort of a carbon copy of his dad, joking and laughing with customers. Over the years, Frank’s kept growing in menu selection and popularity. The menu began offering sandwiches and sides along with Mary’s great homemade chili. Not only was it a hang out for high school students, but it became popular with blue-collar and white-collar workers as well.
In 2008, Dan passed away and Pat’s grandson Shane began sharing the responsibility of running Frank’s. Also helping in the family business today is Pat’s daughter Lynn. Today, Frank’s holds many of the memories that made it great with many relics and memorabilia from yesteryear on the walls. The Dionise story is not just one of an Italian family that settled in a Dutch town but of a great community of people that learned how to share a great time with each other. To this day there are regulars that still remember coming to Frank’s 80 or 90 years ago as children for their first sundae and paying 10 cents for it. Many people that return to visit Zeeland stop into Frank’s at the chance they will see old friends. And those high school children of the past now hold their class reunions at Frank’s to remember the “good ‘ol days.”
After over 99 years in business, Frank’s isn’t just another place to eat but an institution operated by four generations of one family, embraced by a great community, drenched in pleasant memories and caressed by the passage of time.
Frank’s – “Best Burgers Around”