Sometimes, at the end of his busy work day, Eugene Chan takes a spin on a roller coaster. Yes, a real roller coaster that just happens to be close to his office.
Leviathan is handy because Chan’s office is at Canada’s Wonderland, located just north of Toronto. He graduated from U of G in 2008 with a bachelor of commerce degree in tourism management and has been operations manager of food and beverage at the popular theme park since 2010.
If you think the food offered in a theme park must be pretty routine, think again. Chan prides himself on giving park guests the unexpected: “People expect burgers, fries and pizzas. We do have burgers, but they are made with fresh, never frozen, beef. We offer fresh fruit throughout the park, and we have a large buffet restaurant. We try to come up with new foods every year. This year, for example, we have the Top Dog gourmet hot dog.”
Chan also recognizes that park guests have a range of special dietary needs. “We offer halal meals and kosher meals,” he says, “and vegan and vegetarian options as well. We get a lot of compliments from people who didn’t know we had all these options.”
Another new concept Chan’s team brought in for the 2012 season: Coca-Cola Freestyle. These soft-drink machines have become popular in the United States, but Canada’s Wonderland is among the first to bring the technology to Ontario. A Coke Freestyle allows the thirsty purchaser to mix together flavours – adding, for example, vanilla or cherry flavouring to a diet Coke base – to create his or her own drink. The machine provides 104 different flavour combinations. “It’s a fun thing,” he says.
Working in the food and beverage industry isn’t where Chan saw himself when he was planning his career. Born and raised in Hong Kong, he came to Canada to complete his last two years of high school, then returned to Hong Kong for college. “Then I came to Guelph to do a B.Comm. degree, thinking it would be good to learn more about the tourism industry,” he says.
During his summer vacation in 2006, Chan found a summer job in a restaurant at Canada’s Wonderland and returned for the summer of 2007. Those summer jobs taught him a lot, he says. “It’s like going to boot camp, you learn so much in just three months.” By his second summer, he’d been promoted to restaurant manager and helped get the then-new Marketplace Buffet set up and running.
After graduation, Chan was hired by Richtree Market Restaurants and worked at locations in North York, Square One and the Promenade shopping centre. “Then the opportunity at Wonderland came up, and I went for it,” he says.
It’s no small operation. “We have 23 main restaurants and dozens of food carts. Of the 4,000 part-time employees Canada’s Wonderland hires every summer, more than 1,000 work in food and beverage,” says Chan.
And getting a summer job there is no easy ride. They receive over 27,000 applications annually; hiring starts each year in January and February.
Beyond those summer employees, though, Chan says: “We’re a small team. As operations manager, I have many responsibilities. I can never focus on just one thing at a time.” Winters are spent planning, training, testing and hiring for the next summer season. And while it seems as though his job would get harder when the park gates open to let the guests flood in – the park sees more than 3 million visitors each summer – Chan says the pressure actually goes down a bit at that point.
During the summer, he’s rarely in his office. Instead he spends most of his time walking around the park, checking out the restaurants and making sure everything is running smoothly. “Every day here is different, with new challenges and new problems.”
Chan says his Guelph studies provided the foundation he needed to manage the complexities of theme-park food and drinks. “I learned about cost control, operations, and lots of other things that really helped me,” he says. “Of course, you need to get experience to build on that.”
And while he didn’t expect to end up back at Wonderland after leaving it in 2007, he’s glad he returned. “Working at a theme park is very different from working at an ordinary restaurant. When I’m at the front gate at the end of the day, seeing people leave smiling and carrying one of our funnel cakes, I know they’ve enjoyed themselves. That’s what it’s all about,” Chan says. “Seeing that we’ve made people happy just makes my day.” That and being able to ride Canada’s largest roller coaster when he’s ready to relax a little after work.