UMass Amherst graduates from a generation or two ago — and there are a great many still living and working in this region — will recall that the food served on campus was largely the subject of derision and ridicule.
Like the football team is now — although that’s another story for another day.
This one is about what has happened to UMass Dining over the past quarter-century or so. It has made the talk of bland, unimaginative food of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s the stuff of seemingly ancient history, which it is. And, like the school’s marching band, it has become a symbol of excellence and pride, and an inspiration to other schools and other programs at the state’s flagship university.
As this issue’s cover story notes, UMass Dining is on a winning streak for the ages. The program has made UMass Amherst the top school for campus dining for seven years running in the respected Princeton Review. But the story isn’t about the hardware — it’s about what it takes to win all that hardware.
And that’s a lengthy list — everything from quality food, obviously, to authenticity to comprehensive efforts to not only gather feedback from various constituencies, especially students, but listen and respond to that feedback in ways that yield continuous improvement and, yes, more top rankings in Princeton Review.
As anyone in business, or even professional or college sports, knows, getting to the top is one thing. Staying on top, especially when you’re sharing best practices with anyone who asks — which is what the team at UMass Dining does — is much more difficult.
Speaking of business, those working in just about every sector of the economy can take some invaluable lessons from UMass Dining, about everything from a commitment to excellence to what it means to serve a truly diverse audience and fully respect that diversity, to how to proactively respond to those who are being served.
What they do isn’t rocket science — they prepare and serve meals every day. But the attention to detail, the commitment to excellence, and the level of teamwork that goes into the day-to-day operations is extraordinary.
The dramatic change in operations — and quality — at UMass Amherst began with the arrival of Ken Toong, the executive director of Auxiliary Services at the university, which oversees the dining operation, in the late ’90s. He established a culture of excellence, maintained that culture of excellence, and embedded it into every operation and every meal served there — 8 million annually, by some estimates.
This is a story of teamwork and top-down commitment to doing not just a good job, but the best job possible, every single day.
In that respect, UMass Dining isn’t just a department at the university — one that has been the best in the nation for nearly a decade. It’s a model to be emulated.