An obsession with design and fixing problems has given Dick Eisenbarth FCSI a career he is thankful for, but never expected, he tells Michael Jones
Since his childhood, Dick Eisenbarth FCSI has maintained a fascination with design and construction. “I was always into anything to do with building. It stemmed from liking to solve puzzles and figuring out how things are put together – the assembly of things and the organization of spaces. That has always really fascinated me,” he says.
And solving puzzles and problems isn’t just a theme that can be applied to his storied, multi-award-winning career as a foodservice designer. For Eisenbarth it’s a guiding principle that informs how he interacts with clients, colleagues and peers in the FCSI community in a 40+ year career – and how he has led CiniLittle International as CEO, a role he stepped down from earlier this year. He likes to help others solve their puzzles and problems too.
“My parents were both school teachers and I got my love for teaching, helping and mentoring people from them,” he says. As a young man though, Eisenbarth’s future career path was not so clear to him. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I decided to go to school in Indianapolis, my hometown. I went to Indiana vocational Technical College and got a degree in Architectural Engineering. But I couldn’t really find a job in the architectural community. I thought, ‘What do I really want to do? There’s three things I could do: healthcare, finance or foodservice and hospitality. I didn’t like healthcare, because I didn’t want to do deal with blood. Finance wasn’t my thing, because I don’t really like balancing my checkbook. So, I thought ‘foodservice’ – because I love to eat. That’s how I started,” he laughs.
Eisenbarth made the decision to attend Purdue University and study restaurant design. “I told my mom, and she said, ‘Well, can you make money doing that?’ I said, ‘Well, somebody has to do it’. But that’s what I wanted to do. I took every design-related course I could and focused all my attention on design.”
At Purdue, one of Eisenbarth’s professors, Arthur Avery, who passed away in 1998, proved to be an influential mentor. Avery had worked for the US Navy, advising on the facility design for the first development of nuclear submarines. “Kitchen facilities in submarines have to be very tight and structured. He really looked at form and function of the kitchens to maximize space. He fueled my desire to tinker with design and to organize things. He was just a natural for that,” says Eisenbarth.
When he graduated from school, Eisenbarth began interviewing for jobs in consulting. “That’s how I came to Cini-Grissom, as it was called at the time. I started there as a draftsman in 1978, hired by Harry Schildkraut FCSI – we still joke about that – and moved my way up.”
A new career meant a new mentality. “I was just like a sponge. When I got out of Purdue, I felt I knew everything, because I had studied under a renowned professor and pretty much straight A’d everything. So, I learned really quickly that I didn’t know anything. I had to relearn everything that I had learned. I still tell our staff that, when I first started in my career I would make all my mistakes during the day and then go home, have a quick dinner, and come back to the office and correct all the mistakes. That’s just how dedicated I was to it.”
Alongside some business and industry (B&I) and employee dining projects, Eisenbarth primarily focused on healthcare foodservice projects in the early years of his tenure at Cini-Grissom. Ron Kooser FFCSI (PP), who passed away earlier this year, ran the Cleveland office and was an early mentor, having exceptional healthcare experience.
It was a period of rapid growth for the consultancy, which added to its established Maryland, Cleveland and New York offices with further staging posts in Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as London, Tokyo and Sydney after James Little FFCSI (PP) joined the firm and it became Cini-Little International Ltd. Little passed away in 2015, but like fellow founder John Cini FFCSI (PP), who passed away in 2018, the foundations they set for the business are firmly established, worldwide.
“Jim was always swinging for the fences,” says Eisenbarth. “He had no fear of going after work, but he had a really keen eye for both design and management advisory services. He had a brilliant mind as far as putting the mechanics of an operation together. I complemented Jim. I was the one who made it work. I was able to put his thoughts on paper and get it developed.”
Eisenbarth worked his way up in the firm, from draftsman to the presidency. “Soon after I joined until 1986, I was a project manager. Then, when I went to Florida to start up our Miami office, I became a director.”
Having a well-rounded education, including an engineering-oriented background has, says Eisenbarth, helped him immensely in “being able to cover all the bases.” It certainly helped in his first foray into stadia projects, when CiniLittle won the contract for the Miami Dolphins Stadium, now known as the Hard Rock Stadium, in 1986.
“I learned an awful lot as it was the first stadium project the firm had ever done. We really parlayed into that. All together I have been either the project manager or project executive on 27 stadiums around the country. Everything from NBA and NHL to NFL and Major League Soccer – we developed the first designs and have gone back to many of the projects and redesigned them a couple times too when they needed to be updated. Most of my stadium work was really done from the late 1980s to the late ’90s. Then it morphed into a lot of theme park work,” he says.
“I think what I have always really liked about working for a large, multidiscipline firm is you can draw on the experiences from work we have done in, say a hotel, and apply it to a stadium or a university employee dining facility. A lot of the same aspects flow from space to space. I’ve really enjoyed just being able to use that to solve new problems. Good design is good design, but you’ve got to be able to talk the talk.”
The Dolphins Stadium project set Eisenbarth apart, making him one of the leading, go-to consultants for stadia and arena design. “At the time, suites were non-existent. They didn’t have club areas. We really applied a catering aspect to stadia design. It wasn’t just concession stands anymore.”
As well as working in the 1990s on the Georgia Dome stadium, home of the Atlanta Braves NFL team, another career-defining project for Eisenbarth was the Centennial Olympic Stadium, an 85,000-seat main stadium of the 1996 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Atlanta, Georgia. “We did that in 1994. Everybody was so proud that the US got the Summer Olympic Games. So, for us to be able to design the stadium and then also to be involved with its conversion to the Atlanta Braves [MLB] stadium was something that took a lot of tinkering – making the puzzle fit. That really was one of my favorite projects of all time.” His success in sports stadia, helped define the next part of his career: theme park work. “We were fortunate to be involved with Universal Studios in Orlando on the original planning and design of both of the Islands of Adventure, Hollywood and the City Walk projects. We did all the foodservice venues and the commissaries.”
Eisenbarth and his team subsequently worked for Disney and Warner Brothers before the firm was awarded the Universal Studios Beijing project – a theme park that will open in 2022 as part of Universal Beijing Resort. “That is a huge project – probably the biggest project the firm has ever taken on: 27 foodservice venues; 100,000 sq ft commissary employee dining and apartments for 10,000 employees, serving 6,600 meals at a sitting… I ran it as a project executive and I’m proud of our team. We’ve pretty much had all the offices doing different, coordinated aspects of the project. But we pulled it off. It’s the pinnacle of my career.”
Back to the drawing board
In 2005, having made senior vice president, primarily focused on design, Eisenbarth got “a wild hair” to try something different and left Cini-Little to become vice president of preconstruction and design build services for four years at Baring Industries, at the time a division of Electrolux.
“I look at that as a pivotal [moment] in my career and part of making me a really good consultant, because I learned the dealer side of the business. That has helped me well – understanding the mechanics of how the dealer/ manufacturer network works. It’s a give and take business and if you don’t understand what happens on the other side, you can’t really structure the project to maximize the results for the client.”
Back at Cini-Little, Eisenbarth made COO/president in 2015 and CEO in 2018. He has implemented a strong succession plan for the company, which enabled Kathleen Held, CPSM, to step into the CEO role in May, 2020. “I’ve always looked forward, I don’t really like to look back and reminisce. Having a good succession strategy has been a driver of mine throughout my career,” he says.
Eisenbarth has always possessed a keen interest in helping people. I’ve had many of our clients call and say, ‘Can you look at this, and tell me what we should do with it?’ I’ve always loved those situations. Since I announced my cutting back and acting as a special consultant to the firm, I’ve been blown away with the number of people that have reached out and said how much I meant to them or helped them in their career. I had no idea. It’s just what I do.”
Will he miss the cut and thrust of running a business? So long as he stays involved on the design side, he’ll be just fine, he says. “I’m a designer at heart, so I always want to keep my hand in on designing or reviewing projects. I’ve really missed sitting across the table from a client and working with them to solve a problem. My wife Polly would always say, ‘You’ve had a good day today, haven’t you? Because you were designing.”
The Eisenbarths will get to enjoy some of their newfound freedom, though. “We just bought a new Subaru Outback and a friend of mine gave me a book on fun things to do in all 50 states. We’ve been looking at that and planning our road trips. My daughter works here in Jacksonville and we’ve got a seven-yearold granddaughter, who’s wonderful. She’s the love of my life. So, I’m spending a lot of time being close to her.”
Paying it forward
Giving back to his profession is something Dick Eisenbarth values immensely. He “did two stints” on the FCSI The Americas board of directors as a trustee and and served on the FCSI Icon Committee. For four years he has served as a Kitchen Innovations Awards judge for the NRA and speaks regularly at Purdue (serving on its hospitality school’s Strategic Alliance Committee for the last 30 years and was honored with its HTM Hall of Fame ‘Distinguished Alumni Award’ in 2017) and University of Central Florida.
As well as being a founding faculty member and steering committee member of the Foodservice Design Boot Camp, Eisenbarth is also a board liaison for the Electric Foodservice Council (EFC) and the Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education (CHRIE). “Paying it forward is in my DNA,” he says. “I look back at the educators that helped make a good life for me and think, ‘Why wouldn’t I give back?