2013 Silver Plate—Ken Toong: Unbridled Enthusiasm

UMass director’s relentless quest for innovation has earned his program a place at the top.

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

It’s tough to believe that Ken Toong’s seemingly endless list of accomplishments can all be attributed to a really good piece of chocolate cake. Toong’s first foodservice job was as a kitchen helper at a restaurant that had a German chef. It was here that Toong had this fateful bite of cake.

“One day I went to the fridge and [there was] German Black Forest cake,” Toong recalls. “I had a bite inside the cooler and it was so good. I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow, if I stay in the foodservice industry, I can eat as much German cake as I want.’”

This enthusiasm for the industry has made Toong such an infectious and influential presence during his 30-year career. As executive director of auxiliary services at the 28,200-student University of Massachusetts, in Amherst, Toong has built the country’s second largest dining program, based on revenue, and leads the way on the initiatives that matter: health and wellness, authentic ethnic flavors, sustainability and retail.

“Ken is like a foodservice director on steroids,” says J. Michael Floyd, associate vice president for auxiliary services at the University of Georgia, in Athens. “He’s always out there taking his initiatives to the next level. He obviously has a passion for his campus, his job and his students. He wants to create an environment where those students will remember their campus dining experience for the rest of their lives.”

Growing up in Hong Kong provided Toong a goal to strive toward. “We took advantage of the street food in Hong Kong, which exposed me to delicious, simple food,” Toong says. “Also Hong Kong is pretty multinational, so we were exposed to food from all over the world. It taught me early on how important fresh ingredients were.”

After college at Acadia University, in Nova Scotia, and a quick detour into banking, Toong moved to non-commercial foodservice, where he worked for Marriott for 15 years. “That company instilled in me the spirit to serve and taught me about customer service,” Toong says.

Growing revenue: In 1998, Toong joined the staff at UMass. In his 15 years with the university, Toong’s impact can best be seen in the numbers. Toong’s department employs 750 FTEs and 1,700 student workers. The department serves 45,000 people each day. But the most impressive number is the department’s annual food revenue: $80 million. Increasing that number by 400%—from $20 million—is one of Toong’s proudest accomplishments.

“The biggest contributor to that number is meal plan retention,” Toong says. “We’ve been able to keep students on the meal plan after their first two years, which is not the norm for many schools. We also have more than 4,000 off-campus students on the meal plan.”

How did they do it? Toong credits creating excitement through special events, such as creating the world’s largest stir-fry, certified by the Guinness World Records in 2011. He also cites monotony breakers like the Taste of UMass, an annual food show, and UMass Got Talent, a campus talent competition. Since being promoted from executive director of dining services to his current position two years ago, Toong has applied what he learned in foodservice to the campus hotel, bookstore and conference services, which he now manages. The result has been double-digit increases in revenue for each of these areas.

Health and sustainability: Toong isn’t just focused on building revenue. In January 2013 the department partnered with SPE Certified, a restaurant and foodservice certification program designed to enhance the nutritional quality of meals. But this is only the latest step in Toong’s quest to deliver healthy flavors to his campus.

Other initiatives have included the department’s 11-step Be Smart. Eat Smart. Live Smart. healthy-lifestyles initiative, which replaced trans fats in meals with better-for-you fats, reduced sodium in recipes by 30% and offered smaller meat portions while serving more proteins from plant and fish sources.
“The food has to taste good,” Toong says. “We as a university have a responsibility to provide healthy food while respecting sustainability.”

Sustainability has also grown under Toong’s leadership, especially local purchasing. The department bought 27% of its purchases locally in 2012, up from 8% in 2002. The department is able to supplement Massachusetts’ short growing season with an innovative garden program of its own, the UMass permaculture gardens. The campus’s permaculture gardens convert underused grass lawns into low-maintenance and easily replicable gardens.

IFMA Gold Plate winner Tim Dietzler, director of dining services at Villanova University, in Pennsylvania, says these initiatives are just one way Toong has gone above and beyond to give students a memorable dining experience.

“Ken builds strong relationships, supports and encourages his team and never stops looking for areas to improve,” Dietzler says. “He deserves this recognition for all he has done to elevate campus dining across the U.S. and Canada. We have all benefitted from Ken’s quest to achieve foodservice excellence. He is being honored and recognized by IFMA for this achievement, but it is the members of the campus community at UMass who are the ultimate winners.”