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The BIG School that Could

Name: University of Massachusetts–Amherst Dining Services
Annual Meals Served: over 5 million
Annual Revenue: $50 million ($40 million from meal plans)
Annual Purchases: $12 million+
Employees: 350 FTEs plus 1,000 students
Chefs: 13 (incl. 1 executive chef)
Enrollment: over 25,000
Residents: 11,000
Meal Plans Sold: 13,000
Dining Halls: 4
Retail: three food courts (total of 9 outlets), plus 3 cafes, 4 c-stores, 4 express units Other operations: University Club, catering, concessions, bakeshop, warehouse Key Personnel: Ashoke Ganguli, director-auxiliary services; Kenneth Toong, director, dining & retail services; Willie Sng, executive chef, UMass dining services

When you work for the University of Massachusetts system, you have to try harder. As a large public university sitting amidst New England’s horde of prestigious private schools, UMass must constantly fight for its share of attention, especially from the state’s best high school graduates. Because it caps out-of-state enrollment at 25 percent, the university depends on luring a high concentration of blue-chip in-state talent to keep its program excellence.

All departments are expected to contribute to this institutional marketing effort by nurturing and projecting excellence. One that certainly fullfills its part is the school’s Department of Dining Services, which takes a back seat to no other program in the area—or the country, for that matter—in terms of innovation, quality, value and variety. In essence, UMass Dining Services operates one of the largest comprehensive campus foodservice programs in the country on what is largely a boutique model generally associated with much smaller, and more exclusive schools.

The proof of its popularity lies in the numbers: the meal plan base currently stands at 13,000 despite the fact that there are only 11,000 resident students, and only the 7,700 resident freshmen and sophomores are required to purchase meal plans.

This is largely a testament to the vision and leadership of Ken Toong, who has served as director of dining services since 1998 (he also took over retail operations in 2000). Under Toong, UMass Dining has

• opened a spectacular remodeled dining hall this past January to serve as the centerpiece of its resident dining program;
• cost-effectively added catchy branded retail options to the foodservice mix by engaging with small, ground-floor concepts rather than the pricey mass-market chains;
• been at the forefront of cutting-edge trends like global cuisine, sustainability and local sourcing;
• provided expanded convenience and flexibility for board students by extending serving hours at Berkshire Commons to midnight Mondays through Thursdays;
• established Taste of UMass as one of the country’s largest and most popular annual campus food festivals;
• established a win/win working relationship with the university’s Dept. of Hospitality & Tourism Management that allows Dining Services to use the new Marriott Center for catered events weekends and summers;
• pioneered menu innovations like a to-go “Breakfast on the Run” program, a Dim Sum brunch, cook-your-own stir-fry and having freshly-made sushi as part of an all-you-careto- eat dining commons program;

In addition, Toong founded and chairs the Tastes of the World Chef Culinary Conference, an annual gathering and showcase of college segment chef talent held on the UMass campus that is now in its thirteenth year.

The impact of Toong’s leadership on the UMass dining program has been validated by the string of 10 consecutive national Loyal E. Horton awards from the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS) that the program won in the past seven years.

Big Numbers
UMass-Amherst has an enrollment of more than 25,000 students, including almost 20,000 undergraduates. To serve this smallcity- sized population (plus the some-8,000 university employees on campus), Dining Services operates four board dining halls (one with an additional certified kosher dining component) and a variety of retail outlets. There are multi-station food courts in the Student Union and Campus Center complexes, three other cafes in the Campus Center, four c-stores and a variety of cafés and mobile units scattered in other campus buildings. Dining Services also operates the University Club, concessions and catering. The dining halls are the core of the operation, and their centerpiece is the newly remodeled Berkshire Commons (see sidebar on p. 60). Toong views Berkshire as the initial step toward realizing his vision of UMass Dining’s future. It is a visually striking, spacious eatery bristling with fresh food stations (including freshly rolled sushi) serving a wide variety of ethnic and traditional meal choices. Toong wants to overhaul the other dining halls along similar lines in the next five years.

Berkshire was actually not the first choice for the bellwether renovation project, but its selection illustrates quite nicely Toong’s bangfor- the-buck approach to solving problems. When he arrived on campus nine years ago, the university was already in the first stages of evaluating residential dining for possible renovation projects. In fact, by that point they had already hired a consultant who examined the dining halls and recommended Franklin Dining Commons for the first renovation project.

That made sense in that Franklin was already well past its prime, a throwback straightline servery in a constricted space. Toong, though fairly new to the campus, had different ideas.

“The Southwest portion is the most populated part of campus and is closest to the summer camps,” he argued. “I told them, if we do a renovation, let’s spend the money where it will have the biggest impact—on Berkshire, which was the main dining hall in the Southwest, and Berkshire definitely also needed a renovation.”

Toong won his point and today’s spanking new Berkshire is the result. He now has his sights on Worcester Dining Commons for the next project, which he would like to accomplish in the next two years. As before, his reasoning is unassailable.

“We want another flagship dining place at another part of the campus,” he says. “Right now, Berkshire is drawing as many as 7,000 students a day, and we need to even that out. Also, Worcester is close to some new campus housing that is also used during the summer conference season.”

Visit Worcester during a typical mid-week dinner rush and you’d be hard-pressed to see how it could be suffering a popularity shortfall because what you see are throngs of students pressing against the various stations in its main Hillside servery. Worcester is unusual in that in addition to Hillside it also has a smaller, quieter adjunct servery and seating area called the Oak Room, which specializes in Asian dishes, including do-it-yourself stir-fry stations.

In fact, each dining hall has its own unique touches. Hampshire incorporates the adjacent Hampden kosher dining commons and even old-fashioned Franklin has a signature emphasis on vegan dishes with a stand-alone vegan station.

Berkshire, of course, is currently in a league by itself on campus. It is now part of the pitch when prospective students come to check out UMass.

“We let them eat in our dining facility for a nominal $5 fee,” Toong says. “They are also greeted by a chef or manager and given a tour. The best part, we tell them, is that the parents of those with meal plans are always welcome to eat free, since we know who’s paying the bill. Parents should have a good understanding of what we offer to our students.”

Cashing In
Also slated for renovation in the near future are the central retail dining facilities at the university’s Campus Center, especially the Bluewall food court in its basement. “We spend a lot of money already to maintain that place,” Toong says. “We get some 5,000 students coming through each day.

Toong is constantly tinkering with the retail mix at UMass. Even though meal plans form the bulk (around 80 percent) of his revenues, cash sale increases, especially in terms of higher check averages, are a priority.

To effect this without big-name national branded concepts, Toong has created a mix of emerging outside concepts and in-house branded concepts that deliver a wide variety of premium meal choices for retail customers, from Middle Eastern (Pita Pit) and Thai (Cafe Talesai) to Mexican (Tamales) and Asian (Lemongrass, Noodle Bowl). This is Toong the foodie indulging his sense that today’s college students will gladly spring for quality authentic ethnic meal chocies.

Meanwhile, Toong the realist makes sure that traditonal college food choices—pizza, burgers, chicken strips, deli favorites—are also part of the mix. But even here, the emphasis is on value that can justify and generate increased prices.

“We want to open more cafés in academic buildings,” Toong offers. “We need to bring the food to the customer, open more locations where the populations are. Upscale sandwich, soup and salad stations work real well in such places.”

One example is a “Panera-type” upscale café Toong plans for a new science building currently under construction.

Already operating is an upscale café in the new campus wellness center. “There are usually a couple hundred people in there at any given time and they want something healthy, though they are not big eaters,” he says.

Because of that, Toong has marketed the cafe as a destination eatery rather than just something for the workout warriors. “In order to be successful with a café we have to maintain a certain amount of business—about $700 a day—and that means we have to attract more than just the people who use the facility.”

To get locations “where the populations are” often means convincing administrators to give up some space in high-traffic areas.

“We will share profits with building administrations to get administrations to get buy-in,” Toong says. “This impacts our profits but gives us the opportunity to operate in places where we wouldn’t otherwise be able to get in.”

He cites the Procrastination Station in the W.E.B. DuBois Library as an example of such a partnership. It generates $500,000 a year in a relatively tiny nook near the library entrance from its menu of hot and cold beverages, grab-and-go sandwiches and salads, pastries and snacks, and the library gets a share of those revenues.

Sustaining Sustainability
Health and freshness are program mainstays and Toong hired an executive chef, Willie Sng, three years ago to ensure that his programs maintain their culinary freshness.

The school uses only trans-fat-free oils. Fresh produce, legumes and nuts are emphasized in the various stations, often in a just-in-time or to-order mode of service.

Toong seems especially proud of the fact that his program is able to use fresh, healthy ingredients creatively by incorporating them into its extensive array of ethnic food choices. This reduces the monotony factor and also gives the chefs room to exercise their imaginations and skills.

Also part of the freshness/healthfulness of the menu emphasis is a growing commitment to local purchasing. Like many large public institutions, UMass is in a position to nurture and encourage local producers by serving as a commited volume buyer, and UMass’s program has been especially effective in this area.

Currently, Toong proudly says, his department purchases about a fifth of its product from local suppliers, especially a group of half a dozen local farms that have purchasing also enhances menu freshness as dishes are served in accordance with what is in season and available locally.

Next up is a contract farming arrangement Toong is working on through which UMass Dining will commit to purchasing crops before they go into the ground. Toong sees this as a cost-effective way to source specialty product.

“We always want to emphasize authentic dishes, so we have to find sources for some of the more exotic ingredients,” he says. “By getting local farmers to grow things like exotic Oriental vegetables, we will have a good local source while also maintaining our commitment to sustainability.”

In other areas, UMass Dining offers Fair Trade coffee at all its locations, including the dining halls and c-stores, and has joined the Seafood Watch program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium to menu sustainable seafood choices (for more on seafood sustainability programs, see p. 16).

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