Why a Zeeland company is passionate about the triple bottom line

“Triple bottom line” is a concept that views a business based on its people, profits, and effects on the planet. For Jim Eickhoff, president and CEO of Creative Dining Services, the missing “p” that makes the difference for his business is “passion.”

“We want to be able to live it, not just put it on a poster,” Eickhoff says. 
 
Creative Dining Services, located in Zeeland, received the 2021 Triple Bottom Line Leadership Award from the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum for its sustainability and social justice efforts in the foodservice industry. Creative Dining is a hospitality and facility management company that works with education, business, and health care dining services across the Midwest. 
 
“Creative Dining Services has quietly played an enormous role in the sustainability initiatives of an enormous number of colleges and corporations,” says Daniel Schoonmaker, executive director of the WMSBF. “They are working to address some of the most conspicuous issues at major institutions: tackling food waste, introducing reusables, and promoting utility efficiency in commercial kitchens and food security programs.”
 
The Triple Bottom Line Leadership Award recognizes a local organization that models a commitment to the triple bottom line, embracing business practices that demonstrate environmental stewardship, economic vitality, and social responsibility. Past recipients have included the city of Grand Rapids and The Gluten Free Bar. 
 
Eickhoff has been leading Creative Dining for seven years after co-founder Steve Hiligan retired in 2015. The business’ philosophy of “employees first, clients first” continues with Eickhoff. He says it's the employees' commitment to sustainability, diversity, equity, and inclusion that has led to the recognition of the award. 
 
“It validated that we’re on the right course, we’re on the right journey to make sure that we are making a difference,” Eickhoff says. “We are a tapestry of people that are committed to driving decision-making and practices for all.” 
 
Educating and empowering
 
Foodservice has been among the hardest-hit industries by the COVID-19 pandemic. With food and hospitality regulations changing week to week, Creative Dining built real-time playbooks to help educate and equip its customers. Because of the trusted relationship with customers, Eickhoff says that they could tailor solutions to the ever-changing needs forced upon them by the pandemic. 

“We don’t have a lot of red tape,” Eickhoff says. “We are able to make decisions quickly and address things on a case-by-case basis.”

“My boss told me” is Eickhoff’s least favorite phrase in business. That’s why Creative Dining focuses on educating and empowering its employees regarding sustainability. The goal is to have them work with the clients to develop solutions instead of checking a box. 

For example, depending on the refuse service in a customer’s location, composting food sometimes can’t be offered as an option in a cafeteria. So, team members at Creative Dining created on-site composting programs and community gardens to help reduce food waste.

Eickhoff says that his team also coaches their customers to “yummingly” repurpose leftovers. These leftover ideas aren’t like the stereotypical “meatloaf surprise,” but more like making fruit juices from leftover vegetables and fruits. 

Janine Oberstadt is the associate vice president of operations and corporate sustainability at Creative Dining. She says the company is continuing its focus on food waste reduction and will be educating diners during April's Earth Month.
 
“As we continue to grow, we are committed to keeping triple bottom line values central to our strategy and will remain focused on leaning out our operational footprint,” Oberstadt says. 
 
Impact across sectors
 
WMSBF works with hundreds of businesses across West Michigan to improve sustainability, but Schoonmaker says Creative Dining stood out because of its impact across sectors. 
 
“This particular award was recommended by our staff this year,” he says. “We've always been impressed by the work Janine and her team are doing to advance sustainable business locally and across the country.”

Even with the pandemic challenges, Creative Dining Services has remained profitable over the past two years. Eickhoff attributes this business success to the team’s philosophy and by treating “people as big fish in a small pond.” 

He says that new customers come to Creative Dining because they’ve heard of their customer interaction, care, and transparency. Eickhoff responds by saying: “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” 

The future of foodservice has been forever changed by the pandemic. The long-term impacts have strained food supply chains and stretched staff, resulting in a greater need for automation. But Eickhoff says that Creative Dining won’t be taking people out of their business practices. 
 
“There’s a lot of temptation to do people-less activities,” Eickhoff says. “The opportunity is leveraging technology so we can have high-touch with our people but then high-tech (in operations).”
 
Click here to learn more about the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. 
 
Click here for more info about Creative Dining Services.

Read more articles by Luke Ferris.