Ken Toong: Full-Flavored Program

Ever since Ken Toong came to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1998, he has been a busy man. As executive director of UMass Dining he has turned the program into one of the largest revenue-producing campus dining operations in the country. Considering that the university has capped enrollment at 25,000 students, Toong has had to use a variety of methods to grow his program, which serves about 45,000 meals per day. Those methods have ranged from major renovations to simply making himself available to dine with his students every day. This extra effort has helped to put the program on track to earn about $55 million in revenue this year. 

“When Ken generates an idea or sees a concept that he wants, he will stop at no end to make sure that it happens,” says David Eichstaedt, senior manager of retail dining. “He is one of the most passionate people  I’ve ever worked with. He eats and sleeps UMass Dining. Ken is never standing still, and by that I mean once one initiative has been achieved, it is on to the next one.”

Destination dining: One of Toong’s many strategies to improve residential dining has been to reconfigure the way students dine in their respective halls. Since he came to UMass, meal plans have increased more than 60%—from 8,700 to 14,000. There are four main residential dining halls, each with its own distinctive concept. For example, at Worcester Commons, there is a separate dining area called the Oak Room, which is dedicated to authentic Asian fare including make-your-own stir-fry and freshly prepared sushi. Twenty-five percent of the Worcester student population is of Asian descent, so the area was created to cater specifically to them. At Franklin dining hall, there is a dedicated vegan area. Hampshire dining hall focuses on classic American fare, with carving stations, pizzas and pastas. Then there is Berkshire, the crème de la crème of UMass’ campus dining. Completely renovated in 2007 at a cost of $14 million, Berkshire offers an array of world cuisines at 11 distinct stations, with made-to-order noodle bowls and deli sandwiches, along with comfort foods, vegetarian options and a rotating international station.  

“I think this model is more efficient in terms of consistency and program strength,” Toong says. “Since we have more Asian students living near Worcester, we need to have a strong Asian program that offers sushi, Cantonese, Pho noodle, Thai and Indian cuisines. For some students, this type of food is their comfort food.”

Toong’s passion for world flavors can be traced back to Hong Kong, where he was born and raised.

“We went out to eat a lot when I was growing up,” Toong says. “My dad was from the Sichuan province, where food is much spicier compared to the Cantonese cuisine of my mother’s birthplace. These two distinct flavors provided me with a great foundation for flavor profiling.”

In 1978, a teenaged Toong moved to Canada with only $10 in his pocket. He graduated from Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia with degrees in marketing and finance. During his time at Acadia, Toong worked at area restaurants to support himself. After graduation, he worked in banking for one year, before returning to foodservices with a position for Marriott International at Concordia University in Montreal.

Cultivating creative cuisine: Toong worked in several positions for Marriott. In 1993, when he was working at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Toong attended a vegetarian workshop. The workshop set the groundwork for his Tastes of the World Chef Culinary Conference, now in its 15th year.

“I was the only director that attended,” Toong says. “I thought there was a need to bring top-notch trainers to train campus chefs in a real-life setting. When I returned, I arranged for instructors to come annually to provide training on relevant topics. Each year, the conference grew bigger and better and began to draw national attention. When I came to UMass, I moved the conference south of the border. It provides a chance to learn from the experts, work with master chefs, hone personal skills and network with professionals.”

More From FoodService Director

Ideas and Innovation
staff pack

To keep staff motivated, we locked them in a room together. As part of a midsemester training session, we formed work groups and sent them to a local Escape Room to see which team could play the game together most effectively and escape first. Not only was this training a great team-building experience, but it supported a local new business and gave our staff a memorable experience.

Ideas and Innovation
star employee

Senior leadership meets twice a year to do organizational talent planning for every position from the top down. We talk about who are the potential high-performers, and go through how they can grow. People are your differentiator—you need to take care of your assets, and your assets are your human resources.

Industry News & Opinion

Students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor will be served student-grown produce from the campus farm at dining halls this fall, M Live reports.

The dining team received its first batch of produce from UM’s on-campus farm in June, after students received the proper USDA certification to grow, harvest and deliver food to campus dining halls. In order to figure out what produce is needed, students communicate with the dining department weekly, and Michigan Dining purchases items accordingly.

"The students are involved from seed to plate," Executive Chef Frank Turchan...

Sponsored Content
college students eating

From Ovention.

Today’s colleges and universities know they should offer more than a large selection of breakfast cereals in the morning and chicken tenders at lunch to appeal to students. When it comes to what’s trending on campuses, here’s a look at what directors can tune into to boost engagement.

1. Expanded dining hours

Late-night options have long been a popular fixture on college campuses, but if it’s too late, students often choose to venture to off-campus retailers to satisfy their cravings. According to Technomic’s 2017 College & University Consumer Trend...

FSD Resources