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.”

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