FORT ATKINSON — The Fireside Dinner Theatre is a Midwest treasure, boasting award-winning dining, Broadway musicals and four elegant gift shops.
The warm décor offers pastel pink tablecloths, upholstered chairs, cheery artwork and floral accents. The napkins are linen and drinks are decorated with colorful umbrellas and fresh fruit. The menu features the Fireside’s signature salad consisting of fresh fruit, and an assortment of greens topped with the signature Papaya Chutney dressing.
But the restaurant, 1131 Janesville Ave., is also one of the most unusual restaurants around. You get a hint of that before you even have an opportunity to sit down.
Perhaps it is the Christian principles permeating throughout that Rick and Jane Klopcic embraced from Dick and Betty Klopcic, Rick’s parents and founders of the Fireside. But it just may be the partnership with St. Coletta that sets the dinner theater far apart from most establishments.
Since 1978, the Klopcics have welcomed the dedicated workforce of developmentally disabled adults from St. Coletta such as Tom Eufinger, who began working at the Fireside 17 years ago. Washing dishes and putting away pots and pans might not be everyone’s idea of an ideal job, but the 70-year-old has an engaging attitude about his work.
“Somebody has to do this job, and it might as well be me. I have washed more pots and pans than you can ever think about in your whole life,” he said. “Besides, I like to laugh and keep other people laughing and I can do that right here.”
Originally from Indiana, Eufinger, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Jefferson in the Madison Diocese, works two days a week, down from the three he worked for years.
“I am getting old and I needed to retire a little,” he joked. “Besides, my knees hurt because I had knee surgery in 2001 on both knees and I had open heart surgery in 2007, so I can’t do what I used to do.”
St. Coletta employees like Eufinger are required to live independently in a residential environment such as an apartment or group home. When Heidi Fink, 41, began working at the Fireside five years ago, she was excited for the opportunity to earn a paycheck and to be more self-sufficient.
“It makes me feel really good to be able to work and make some money,” she said.
Fink also washes dishes and makes sure to show up on time always displaying a pleasant attitude. For her, the best part of working at the Fireside is the people.
“I like people and making friends,” she said. “I have made a lot of friends and get to see the shows – and that is really fun. The owners are really good to me.”
As to how long she plans to work at the Fireside, Fink, also a member of St. John the Baptist, is quick to respond.
“As long as I can,” she said.
Of the dozen St. Coletta residents employed by the Fireside, 11 are Catholic and regularly attend Mass at the Jefferson parish. While the Klopcics are not Catholic, they support the St. Coletta Mission and were recently awarded for their commitment to the developmentally disabled.
In conjunction with Rehabilitation for Wisconsin, a state-wide membership and advocacy organization, St. Coletta recognized the Klopcic family for its commitment. In addition, St. Coletta received a three-year accreditation, the highest possible, through the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities which is an independent, accrediting body for organizations like St. Coletta. Organizations that receive CARF accreditation demonstrate that they are in compliance with a rigorous set of quality and customer service standards. More than 5,000 human service organizations at 18,000 locations in the United States and internationally are accredited through CARF.
While Rick Klopcic was honored to learn of the CARF and Rehabilitation for Wisconsin awards, he admitted that the relationship is a win-win for all parties. Because the restaurant prides itself on cleanliness, staff relies on St. Coletta employees to give a favorable first impression with spotless table settings and clean pots and pans.
“This has been a really neat experience for both of us,” he said. “These ‘kids’ are coming into the workplace, learning a job and we get to see the relationship between them and us grow. The ‘kids’ are great and have a wonderful work ethic, consistent, and take their jobs very seriously. We all know each other by name and enjoy it when I come into the kitchen and joke around with them.”
The family atmosphere extends to occasional breaks from the work grind to include fun activities, such as bowling or miniature golfing parties.
“We went bowling most recently and they beat me,” he said. “We had a good time; and had pizza and soda and spent a nice afternoon with them in a relaxing, fun atmosphere.”
Working at the Fireside has changed the lives of the St. Coletta residents over the years, according to public relations director Andrea Speth. To be qualified for the work program, residents need to be competitive, employable people who can work independently and with minimal supervision.
“They are valued at the Fireside because they are providing a needed service and serve an essential function for the restaurant and help with the theatre’s success,” she said. “That is huge. It isn’t work training; they provide a vital part of the success and feel great about themselves. They work for a long time and are able to achieve their work goals.”
Their openness to employ residents of St. Coletta isn’t something that Rick Klopcic believes makes them special. For that uniqueness, he points to God.
“This is just part of the Lord’s great commission to disciple and be examples and try to follow his teachings that we should be brothers and sisters to one another and help each other out,” he said. “We are doing what we are called to do. I guess it is just becoming a lot easier because we are growing older and reading more in the Word. It is rewarding for us to have the residents of St. Coletta working here.”