Funeral professionals are in the hospitality business

Date Published: 
January, 2006
Original Author: 
Mark Krause
Krause Funeral Homes & Cremation Service, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, January 2006

A funeral home that smells like a bakery?
A tailgate party in the visitation room?
What the heck is going on at Krause Funeral Home?

I knew we needed to go there and I knew others were already doing it, but I was waiting for the time to feel right. Then the 2005 Wirthlin Report, "American Attitudes and Values Affected by Death and Deathcare Services," came out and I knew it was time to go down the path of no return: adding food to the products and services we offer our clients.

Before I present the meal, I want to talk about the recipe. Knowing who we are and what our brand stands for is essential to understanding where we are headed. Every business, whether it's a hamburger stand, a jewelry store, a funeral home or a cemetery, has an image that defines the company and the clientele it wants to attract.

It used to be that strong, safe businesses were in the group between the lowest priced and the service leader. Being in the middle was comfortable for most businesses, but our culture has changed and so has the funeral consumer. What has happened around the country has been a polarization of preference. People either are looking for high value and are willing to pay for what they value—or are price—driven because they do not perceive high value in a service or a commodity.

We need to imagine the possibilities. Many of us have spent a great deal of time over the past few years learning new practices that have been difficult yet ultimately made us better funeral providers. A funeral used to be about picking out a casket and having a service, and at many funeral homes, that is still the case. In today's world, that no longer will make us the funeral home or cemetery of choice.

We need to imagine the possibilities of everyone walking through our doors and being exposed to a whole new type of funeral experience. We need to be so different that it's obvious to people from the minute they walk in our front door they have come to a special place.

From how we answer the phone and greet people at the front door to when we say goodbye with family follow-up, we have the opportunity to create an environment that makes us the compelling choice in our market. I want people to say, "You can go to any funeral home and have a funeral, but if you want it to be special, you need to go to Krause's."

I knew it was time to add food to our services, but I wanted to take what is actually an old idea and offer a new approach, one that would be right for my market.

I know that mixing food and funerals is nothing new. For years, people have had funeral luncheons, often after the burial. But bringing the refreshments into the visitation and funeral experience is long overdue.

Many funeral and cemetery providers have had food facilities, banquet halls and receptions rooms for years. For a number of years some of my colleagues have been incorporating these types of rooms in the design of their funeral homes and cemetery committal chapel buildings. Heck, the church luncheon is as old as America.

If we are to keep memorial services in our facilities and out of the country clubs or hotel banquet facilities, we need to rethink how we present the funeral experience. We need to create special family events that meet the expectations people have today.

Studying the research, then going beyond it
The Wirthlin Report survey found that almost one-half of all consumers were interested in funeral providers offering a reception hall or room, so adding one was a no-brainer.

Wirthlin also found that only 24 percent of consumers were interested in funeral providers offering catered food or beverage services. But my contention is that most people simply haven't experienced how such a service can transform a funeral or visitation—or even an arrangements conference. Once they've experienced the difference, those numbers will go way up.

As I see it, the problem is not that families don't want us to offer catering services, it's that most funeral homes consider providing food and beverages either a pain in their, um, in what they sit on, or they think of it as incidental, not really important to the funeral. But really, what family event doesn't have food as a major focal point?

• We have three locations, so we started by putting a reception room and kitchen into the one that does the least business, so we could learn from it before tackling our busier locations. We visited restaurants, churches, banquet halls, catering companies and hotels for ideas, then turned our casket selection room into a reception room that seats more than 100 people and has a full kitchen adjacent to it.

The room is used for every service at that facility and we are serving more than just coffee and soft drinks at least 45 percent of the time. We use caterers to provide and serve the refreshments. MKJ Marketing created a brochure for us that spells out all the options and includes photos, providing families with information in an appealing format.

• The fact that we don't have a reception room yet at our busiest location led to the idea of serving refreshments in the visitation rooms. Funny, the only people who don't care for this idea are some of the older funeral directors. The families like it.

• The next brainstorm was to offer fresh-baked refreshments in our arrangements conferences. We had a funeral director's assistant, a retired minister who was always baking things at home and bringing them in for the staff. Now we pay him to get in early and bake enough "goodies" for all three of our locations.

I want people to understand how food will enhance the funeral experience, and the process of educating them begins with the arrangement. People who walk into our funeral home immediately notice the wonderful aroma of fresh-baked goods.

Our goal is to create an exceptional and meaningful experience, and that means we must embrace all of the elements the hospitality business considers mandatory. Truth be known, we are in the hospitality business. We need to revisit how we walk, how we talk, how we look and how we think.

What does the Krause Funeral Home brand stand for? It stands for the very finest in staff, facilities, service, compassion and maybe your favorite food.

I have no doubt that some funeral professionals think having a staff member bake fresh "goodies" every day and setting up dessert bars or tailgate parties in the visitation room are sacrilegious or demeaning to funeral service.  That's OK-I like it when my competition thinks that way!

by ICCFA Magazine Editor Susan Loving

What did he do with the caskets? Where did he find caterers?
How has he kept the staff from getting fat eating all those fresh-baked goodies?

Getting into the funeral food service business
How did you choose which facility to put the reception room in?
We chose our Brown Deer Road location in Milwaukee because it's the least busy and we want to go to school on the concept. It will handle about 120 calls in 2005. We do plan on putting them in all three. It's a matter of saving up enough money to do it, and deciding what works well and what we want to do differently with the next one.

Our New Berlin location will handle close to 300 calls in 2005, and our West Capital Drive location in Milwaukee will handle about 755. Adding food service there will be a challenge, but it was thinking about that that generated the idea of serving food right in the visitation room. We've tried doing that, and it almost works out better than using the reception room.

People don't know what to expect when they come to the funeral home, other than seeing the body, and they're uncomfortable with that. Bringing in picture boards made it better, and then videos, and we have Oliver the grief therapy dog (see the March-April 2005 ICFM). And now food. It changes the tenor of the visitation or funeral.

In the Milwaukee area, we have 65 to 70 percent of our funerals in the evening, which is more consumer friendly. Who can get off from work to go to funerals these days? So when people are coming to a visitation, followed by a funeral, during the dinner hour, why not serve them little sandwiches, or desserts? It helps create a warm, sharing atmosphere.

In the case of cremation, where the committal service is delayed a few days because of the cremation, what do you do when you have people at the funeral home and there won't be the traditional after-committal luncheon? Why not have food at the funeral home?

Do you think you have to have a certain size business in order to offer food service?
Oh, gosh, no. And there are lots of guys doing this sort of thing already. People have had luncheon rooms at funeral homes at many places for many years. What we're seeing now is the snowball effect.

And we need to offer people food service not just after a funeral service or the burial. We offer food during the visitation, or even catered at their home. We'll set it all up for you.

We get in this paradigm where food always has to be after the funeral. Why not do it during the visitation? People tend to socialize over food at family events. How often are hors d'eouvres or snacks put out for people to nibble on while they talk? It helps to induce conversation and create a relaxed atmosphere.

This past weekend we served four different families, and all four of them had food and the dog. So between having to deal with all the food issues, which are huge, and then the dog issues, it's a lot of work.

Isn't Oliver trained not to beg for food?
He's a good dog; he's just distracted around all that food. He has certain issues that are non-negotiable, and the food one is pretty close. We use the commands and he leaves the food alone, but you can tell he's distracted.

My family's been in the funeral business 70 years, and we've figured that one out pretty well. Now we're in this whole other business that we've been in for about six months, and every day is a new adventure. One of the issues that came up recently Is how do we give families the leftovers to take home in a better, more attractive way. It's going to cost us to upgrade that.

Where do you get your food service equipment?
We get plates and silverware from a restaurant supply company that is very willing to work with us. Choosing equipment has been another learning curve, though. For example, how do you offer coffee in the visiting room so that the presentation is nice? Do you have the industrial coffeemaker, or do you get something that's appealing to look at?

Our first coffee set looks like a thermos with a lever on top. You do see them at a lot of nice hotels, but I think we need to go to the next level. I'd like to see something more silvery, dressy.

We need to offer service so compellingly different that the family's going to choose us instead of going to the country club or the church reception hall. And we have to be reasonably priced. What is it going to cost per plate? How much do we need to charge for the room and cleanup? Again, it's a learning curve.

Do families want tablecloths? If so, do you charge extra for that? That whole area is extremely expensive. We researched it and found that a lot of restaurants don't use tablecloths. We made the tables so they're nice enough without linens. But some families want tablecloths, and we will provide them for an extra charge.

We can create whatever kind of reception the family wants. It's the same as with wedding receptions—you can spend a little or a lot.

Another issue is quantity, how much food do you want? We tell people about how many hors d'eourves they'll get for a certain amount of money, but we don't know how much Uncle Joe who weighs 400 pounds is going to eat, so the family has to gauge that. Some families nibble, others will eat the last thing in the pan.
In order to offer this service, you got rid of your casket selection room. What did you do with the inventory, which I assume included more than caskets?
The caskets we stored and then sold, so we gained $40,000 to $50,000 from selling off that inventory, which helped pay for the cost of remodeling the room. We have the casket selection explained in books, and eventually I think we'll move that onto computers. Books or computers are what preneed salespeople use offsite anyway.

Have people complained about not being able to touch or see the caskets?
You know, as funeral directors we assume that's going to be an issue for families, but the reality is that so far, it hasn't been.

And funeral service is changing from its old focus on the casket. As the focus shifts to other things such as videos of the person's life, and sharing food, the casket becomes just another piece of the puzzle rather than the focal point of the funeral experience.

We moved the urns, register books and other small items into the arrangement rooms. We've also taken all the products and services that we present in our Remembrance Book and pictured them in collage-type posters we have on the walls. It's a low-pressure way to let people know what we offer. People notice things on a poster and say, "Tell me more about the candlelight service."

You also provide refreshments to all families during the arrangements conference. How does that work?
We have a retired minister who works for us as a funeral directors' assistant. He bakes as a hobby and was always bringing in goodies for the staff, so that got us to thinking. Instead of just offering people cookies during arrangements, why not take it up a level and offer home-baked goods? That would be more memorable.

So now we pay him to bake. He spends two to three hours every morning in the funeral home kitchen. The funeral home smells like a bakery—the aroma permeates the whole place. At first, I was kind of concerned about that, but it's been positive. It helps people relax. The women will usually comment on it—their eyes light up when they notice the aroma.

We bring in a tray of warm bars, cookies, little cupcakes—whatever he's baked that day. They look appealing, they smell appealing. Engaging all the senses makes an experience memorable. People only know what they see, feel, touch. We pack up the leftovers, plus some extra, for them to take home.

Our other funeral homes are about a 15 to 20 minute drive away, and he makes enough to take there, as well.

Your staff must like having all this home baked food around.
We used to bake hot cookies all the time, but we had funeral directors who would take the tray of leftovers to their desks, so we stopped for awhile. With the new system, I've told my staff we're not buying new uniforms if they gain weight and can't fit into their old ones! They haven't so far. And no one's allowed to sneak food to Oliver.

Who prepares the food for the luncheons?
Caterers, and dealing with them has been another learning process. You hear of one that does a good job, so you start working with them and you see what they do and don't do well.

We found one that provided good food at a good price, but with service that was a little wanting. We've tried a high-end caterer that gave us outstanding service, but they were expensive, and the food was so-so.

We've decided we need an assortment of caterers so that we can match what they do to what the family's looking for. Some families want a buffet with barbecued chicken and mashed potatoes; others want a sit-down dinner with tuxedoed waiters.

We have three or four caterers we're using right now, and I think we'll always be searching for new ones, because as we continue to do this, our expectations are going to rise. First of all, we're going to have a better idea of what our clients need and want. And we'll simply be more experienced at handling it.

Right now, our clients seem very surprised—pleasantly surprised—that we will do this at all, especially during the visitation.

What about people who want to bring in their own food, or want to bring in part of the food?
If people order some catered food and also bring some of their own, maybe a special dish, that's fine. If they want to bring all the food themselves, there is a room charge. Right now, it's very nominal because we're trying to change the culture. We want to encourage people to use our facility, not give them a reason to go somewhere else.

I don't think you should discourage people from bringing in their own food, because really our main product is the funeral and the celebrating of the life.

The food is one of those "extras." It does differentiate us and adds to the experience at our funeral home. And it's also enough of a pain that a lot of funeral homes just aren't going to do it, so it maybe gives people another compelling reason to choose us.

What have you learned in the first few months of offering food service?
I've learned that you have to have a lot of vision. You have to work with a lot of different caterers.  And you have to really spend time with your staff and be hands-on trying to make it happen, because your typical funeral director will say, "This is waiting on people, it's not what I do." Well, actually, it is what you do, it's just thinking about it in a different way, and it is a lot of hard work.

Explaining food service options is different from explaining caskets, and the presentation is key. We had to come up with a whole new training model for our staff, and a whole new brochure, the "menu" that MKJ developed for me.

The menu brochure looks very appetizing; all the pictures are totally geared toward women. Ask a man for some potato chips and he'll rip open the bag and hand it to you, but a woman will put the chips in a bowl so they'll look nice. It all comes down to presentation. You want something memorable, not something that will make people say, "Let's do this at the country club next time."

This doesn't mean we can't have informal gatherings such as picnics at the funeral home. We had one this past weekend. The family had the Wisconsin Badgers football game playing on our big-screen TV. The casket was there, the big-screen TV and lots of food was available. It was like a little tailgate party—it was nice.