Food, Finances and Friendliness
Kevin Yuen keeps Rice’s Housing and Dining services on budget and focused on the community they serve.
By Jenny West Rozelle ’00
As business director of Housing and Dining (H&D), Kevin Yuen ’20 believes that communication is key to everything he does at the university. “We work with a lot of people, and we are results-driven. The interconnections with people are really important,” he said. Yuen came to the U.S. from Hong Kong to earn his degree in hotel and restaurant management at the University of Houston. In 2011, Yuen began his career with H&D, where he has been honored for his outstanding work at Cohen House as well as his volunteer outreach to Rice’s Chinese student community. He earned his MBA from Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business in 2020.
You were promoted to business director last year — what are your day-to-day responsibilities now?
In our department, we’re always cross-training, doing multiple things and learning a lot. I’m responsible for all the financial activity in H&D. We support the residential college projects, like the new Hanszen wing, as well as any work on magisters’ houses and graduate student housing. I analyze the project costs so we can establish their budgets. I also try to find a funding source to support each project, so it involves a lot of communication with other departments, like Rice Management Company and finance and administration. A big part of the job is communication — with our executive chefs, our managers and our staff — and I frequently correspond with students and parents about billing and our meal plan. Right now, the focus is on food costs due to inflation, something I have concentrated on since I started this new position.
Where do you spend most of your time on campus?
If I don’t need to be in the office, I try to spend every minute walking around campus, especially during lunchtime. I monitor the dining services — for example, Brochstein Pavilion, the student center and Cohen House — to make sure our staff, customers, students and faculty are having a good experience. Since faculty members spend a lot of time with students, I ask them what students are asking for — if they need more late-night meals or other options. If I walk from Hanszen to Brochstein Pavilion, I am able to meet with a lot of people.
How has H&D responded to Rice’s growing and more diverse student population?
We want all students to have a feeling of home food from their country. We are going to work on having more global cuisines at each servery, like Mediterranean, Indian and Asian options. One of the first new concepts we established was at the North Servery: Wok on Sunset. It’s been quite successful, and we’ll continue to carry on new concepts in other serveries.
What kind of cross-training do you do?
I’ve worked at the graduate student off-campus housing with the facilities manager to oversee daily operations and get hands-on experience about move in and move out as well as help with maintenance issues. I’ve helped the maintenance team to find out how to assist students with work orders. Basically [by cross-training] we try to be able to cover every area — not to become an expert, but at least we can step in and cover our co-workers if they need to take PTO or leave.
How did the pandemic change what you do in H&D?
Before the pandemic, I focused on the operations and financials at Cohen House. When the pandemic started, my role changed to project manager. I worked with the Crisis Management Team to provide data analysis reports, like contact tracing for positive COVID cases, how many COVID cases were on campus and how many students were in isolation rooms.
At that time, we also started multiple dining facilities upgrades. We expected the new Hanszen wing to be complete in 2022, so one of my biggest projects was renovating the South Servery to increase capacity by 25%. We had to complete that during winter break 2020, which was quite tight. I was in charge of the project with the dining director. We were happy to see the result: It gave us more space and more possibilities for the chef to provide different cuisines.
Was it difficult to earn your MBA while working full time at Rice?
My MBA degree was one of the biggest achievements of my life. I received a lot of encouragement from other people, especially from my family and my supervisor. They gave me a lot of support during that time. They provided me a perfect environment to balance my work, studies and family, so I treasure those two years. My motivation is really simple: I wanted to learn what I could from my MBA to contribute to my position.
What other accomplishments are important to you?
We installed a new solar panel array on the graduate students’ Rice Village Apartments last year. I led this project with Richard Johnson [executive director for sustainability] in Facilities Engineering and Planning. This is the first time we’ve installed solar panels off campus. They generate power to support the apartments. It’s a university achievement for sustainability in the future.
What do you do as a volunteer on the development committee of the nonprofit organization Children at Risk?
The goal of the organization is to promote a better future for our children, not only on the financial side, but also we provide a lot of educational opportunities. We hope to raise awareness in the community so they can understand the main issues our children are facing right now. I’m lucky to have a stable job and good environment. We try to help other families to achieve this goal as well.
Tell us about your life outside the hedges.
Family is one of my biggest focuses. My daughters are 7 and 12. My wife and I enjoy traveling with them. Last winter break, I took my family back to Hong Kong to experience Asia. Besides traveling, my main goal is to keep learning — it’s a never-ending journey to me.