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.”
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.”