Ken Toong: Full-Flavored Program

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Stance on sustainability: In an effort to cater to customers concerned with sustainability, Toong says the department purchases 23% of its produce from local farmers and 10% of all food items from New England-based vendors. The university’s increase in local food purchases—from 8% to 23% in 10 years—has encouraged five other colleges in the area to increase their local food consumption through a farm-to-school project. Currently, UMass is experimenting with trayless dining. Although Toong is reluctant to go completely trayless, the department has recently launched a program to encourage students to choose to go trayless on their own.

“At UMass, we believe in options,” Toong says. “The main message is to educate our customers to take only what they can eat. We implemented a small plate, big flavor program so portions are smaller. However, everyone likes the convenience of having a tray. I do not use a tray, but I do not want to restrict the customers, so I leave the decision up to them.”

Another initiative the department recently launched is a study on the dreaded Freshman 15. The department is recruiting 100 students (both male and female) and educating half of them on the importance of portion size and exercise, while using the other half as a control group, according to Dianne Sutherland, the department’s dietitian.

“Students must record their diet intake and record their exercise and alcohol consumption,” Sutherland says. “We would like to prove that the educated group will gain less weight than the other group. With obesity rising, we are trying to help prevent adult obesity.”

Sutherland says Toong’s interest and commitment to health issues makes him stand out.

“He is on the cutting edge of trends,” she says. “He attends one to two health conferences each year to learn about the latest trends in health and world cuisine. By doing this, it makes us, his staff, grow professionally.”

Rethinking retail: In Toong’s quest to offer innovative retail concepts, he tries to think outside the box. One example of this came to him when he was passing through an airport in Minneapolis.

“During a layover, a bakery called French Meadow caught my eye,” Toong says. “French Meadow offered organic breads, soups and a collection of all-natural meats in ciabatta bread. I thought we needed a restaurant that provides all-natural organic ingredients, promotes sustainability and serves healthy and tasty food. Now we have one, with a smaller version in the works.”

Toong has also imported a West Coast concept called Café Talesai, which serves fast upscale Thai cuisine; and UMass was the first university in the U.S. to bring Canadian mainstay Pita Pit to a college campus.

“I think the smaller brands tends to be more customer driven, more flexible and allow you to be more creative than the mega brands,” Toong says. “In this age and stage, to be successful you need a combination of discipline (recipes from the brand) and customization to enhance the product offering.”

Another important aspect of retail was to bring more options to where the students are. The most popular example of this is the small library café.

“The library café was important because it generates new revenues, particularly cash revenue,” Eichstaedt says. “The service is convenient, so customers are more apt to use it. The key on our end is to make sure that it is a financially successful venture.”

The “Procrastination Station” does between 1,200 and 1,500 transactions a day. During finals, when the café is open around the clock, that number can climb to 2,200. Eichstaedt says there are plans to expand and offer a full-service café that has a larger seating area and menu.

Special events: One of Toong’s biggest challenges is making sure his program never feels stale. He is constantly working to bring variety to every aspect of the operation. This is most apparent in the dozens of special events his department puts on each month. Each year, the stand-out event is the department’s Taste of UMass—an event where more than 75 vendors set up booths for the students. This past year, the department partnered with a local radio station to put on “UMass Idol” for aspiring singers.

“We serve 7,000 students in 3 hours,” Toong says. “Besides the food, we have entertainment like Patriot’s  cheerleaders, a battle of the student bands and contests such as a hot dog eating contest. It is a great way to get students away from the dining commons to enjoy food and entertainment with fellow students.”

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