In late 2015, a funeral home in northwest suburban Wheeling made headlines when it was granted a liquor license by the village board, allowing it to serve alcohol at wakes and memorial services.
Now a Brookfield funeral home owner has applied for a liquor license, hoping to provide the same option for the business’ clientele. The Brookfield Village Board is expected to act on the request at its Sept. 12 meeting.
Todd Hitzeman, owner of Hitzeman Funeral Home at 9445 31st St., told village trustees on Aug. 22 that he is requesting the license because he’s gotten so many requests to serve alcohol at wakes and memorial services.
A large majority of the funeral home’s clients ask about catering services, Hitzeman said, and a good number have asked about serving alcohol.
“The growing percentage of our clients are looking for more options when it’s coming to visitations, memorial services, the gatherings,” Hitzeman said. “Our current lounge policy states no alcoholic beverages are allowed on the premises.”
But, said Hitzeman, that wouldn’t stop people from enjoying alcoholic beverages anyway. Instead, he said, people would head out to the parking lot and tailgate. And it’s tough to control, he said.
That was also a factor in the decision to seek a liquor license from the village of Wheeling, said Jon Kolssak of Kolssak Funeral Home, which has been offering alcohol service since the spring.
“You’d find beer cans behind couches and in the restrooms,” said Kolssak. “And the liability falls on us.”
So in an effort to control alcohol consumption and also offer clients something they were looking for, Kolssak turned to the Wheeling Village Board and a local restaurant for assistance.
Kolssak said he has partnered with the Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants group, which operates a Tuscany restaurant a few blocks away from the funeral home, to provide the alcohol service at the funeral home.
The funeral home supplies a custom-made bar that can be moved wherever it’s needed inside the funeral home, but the bar is staffed by trained and certified Stefani employees.
“They bring in their own servers,” Kolssak said, “and the liability is to the restaurant itself. It’s been great for both companies.”
Kolssak wouldn’t say how many clients have taken advantage of the alcohol service policy, except to say that the funeral home has served alcohol to groups numbering between 20 and 200.
“It will gain in popularity,” Kolssak said. “We want to make sure we’re listening to what our families bring up.”
Kolssak Funeral Home offers set packages for liquor service depending on how many people are expected to attend a service or visitation. For up to 50 people, for example, there’s a $150 fee for the bartender/setup and flat fee of $500 plus tax for 100 drinks. For any drinks over the package amount, the client pays a per-drink charge.
The funeral home makes sure to schedule services where alcohol will be served on days when other wakes and services are not being held at the funeral home, Kolssak said.
Hitzeman indicated he would seek to set up similar package deals at his Brookfield funeral home. One difference, Hitzeman said, is that he intended for his own staff to serve the alcohol and not engage an outside company to do so.
There are instances when the funeral home wouldn’t offer alcohol service, said Kolssak. While it may be appropriate at a memorial service for someone who has been cremated, it’s probably not appropriate at a service for a young person, where a large segment of those attending will be young people, or if there are indications of alcohol abuse in the family.
“I don’t want to throw gas on a fire,” Kolssak said. “In the funeral service you only get one chance to make it right.”
Hitzeman said he was slow to get comfortable with the idea of catering, much less serving alcohol, at the funeral home, which has been located in Brookfield since 1963. The business, which started in Chicago is 112 years old.
What changed his mind, Hitzeman said, are the attitudes of prospective clients.
“Years and years ago, I was the one who really was against eating in the funeral homes,” Hitzeman said. I figured we’re not a restaurant, we’re a funeral home. In all actuality, we started losing business because I was still holding on to something.
“This time I’m trying to be ahead, to offer families what they want and still have control of it.”