Toong Leads $100 Million+ UMASS Amherst Dining Program to New Heights

UMASS Amherst Dining Stir Fry
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Cultural diversity and student involvement are key ingredients within the recipe for success for University of Massachusetts/Amherst’s (UMASS Amherst) dining hall selection; and the quality and care offered within the facilities are crucial as well.

The days of late-night munchies and early morning breakfasts are here to stay for the dining halls at UMASS Amherst as veteran dining service director Ken Toong and his team listen carefully to the input of the university’s student population.

Ken Toong UMASS Amherst Dining
Ken Toong, UMASS Amherst Dining

With the largest dining hall in the country as part of its portfolio, UMASS/Amherst has grown in its 24 years under Toong to an $105-million-dollar business. Among the post-Pandemic goals for the UMASS/Amherst dining team has been to respond the needs of both a growing international student body and vegetarians with an eye towards authenticity. “Authenticity, to us, means cooking what the old country makes them,” Toong said. “Something that reflects the culture, the origin, how we prepare and cook for them is just like where the students come from.”

In order to find out the preferences of his dining students, his team has formalized how they listen to their customer students. Toong assembled a marketing team of six student-ambassador-interns, to share their dining experiences, and how they can be improved. Toong’s team meets with them weekly to consistently amend the issues he discovers and revise menu plans already in place. “The days of Shepard’s pie and roast turkey are over, they’re not popular for our students anymore. We continue changing our menu to meet their needs,” the award winning Toong (2013 Silver Plate winner) added.

Deeper than the food they decide to serve, Toong sees the value in the story behind the meals as well. With more people wanting to know their impact on the sensitive world around them, providing previously unknown information about the food being served is part of the new-wave dining hall experience. He believes that advocating the origin of food, its impact on the environment, and the process of farm-to-table is what students want to see and what will keep everyone satisfied.

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On the beverage side of the industry, healthy alternatives are also on the rise, with soda consumption declining and more students choosing to drink seltzer, unsweetened iced tea, and drinks with low amounts of sugar. Even a classic such as white milk is now shifting, with more students preferring oat or almond alternatives to whole dairy. “It’s interesting by listening to kids, we found out little things like they love a local chocolate milk that we offer. “

UMASS Amherst Dining Local Produce
UMass Dining sources 30% of its produce locally, serving over six million meals every year through sustainable menus, smaller portions, and a “big flavor” philosophy all in the aim of reducing food waste.

“Of course, the cost may be a little higher with authentic ingredients, but it balances out with the savings by reducing food waste, and the students are happier,” Toong said.

With all the trends of dining adapting, technology is at the forefront for a generation raised on electronic devices. With the rise of food ordering services like Uber Eats and Grubhub, these pose as a new competitor for the student-dining experience. Toong isn’t worried though: “Students like the socializing-component that dining halls provide, and friendly ambience is something a delivery service can’t offer. “The customer comes first, you need to take care of them, and then they’ll take care of you,” Toong said. “They [the students] like the meal plan because they can eat all day and all night, Grub Hub has convenience, but why pay them extra?”

Adaptation and innovation are propelling Toong and his team into the future, listening to the students’ wants and delivering them open to criticism and accepting progressive feedback.

Dining Alaskan HalibutSometimes though, the secret to success lies in simplicity. A waffle-bar in the morning or a slice of pizza at night may be all the students need to keep them content and fueled enough to get their work done and social lives buzzing. “The key is to keep searching for quality items that are fun that for instance create an interaction with a chef at a cooking station,” Toong said.

With supply chain issues easing and students back on campus dining halls are full again, UMASS/Amherst dining is once again in an aggressive growth mode. “It began with my trip to the NRA Show last month in Chicago, where we will start the search for those key additions for to 2022-23 school year,” Toong concluded.

To learn more about the UMASS Amherst dining program, visit their website.