In September, JFE marked our 10-year anniversary in the chef-prepared Asian food industry. Starting in the Houston, Texas, area with a handful of sushi kiosks now commonplace in grocery deli, we’re fortunate to boast more than 520 domestic locations alone. And with our fourth Seoul Snowfox Grab-n-Go Café opening in this month, we’re only just beginning to make our mark in the restaurant industry with our new food category!
Among the keys to our growth the last decade was riding the tide of intense competition between rival grocers. Savvy customers were demanding increasingly fresh and exotic cuisines from their grocer’s delis, and you—the small business owner with a dream—were there with chef-prepared, ready-to-eat food. You introduced a new kind of food to curious customers, and we’ve all been rewarded for it.
Creating excitement in grocery deli was a winning strategy for our client companies, too, certainly contributing to our largest client Kroger’s status as the only mid-tier grocer to make a profit during the country’s recent recession. With the momentum they picked up in that time, there’s no immediate end in sight for Kroger’s growth – JFE alone has opened 19 newly-built stores this year with the grocery giant.
According to Fortune magazine an apparent contributing factor to those numbers is sushi sales, which have increased 27% in the last four years.
Looking back on the company’s last 10 years as part of Houston’s and other cities’ economies, JFE founder, Jim Kim, cites job creation as one of its proudest accomplishments. “We’ve been fortunate to provide small business opportunity to so many communities nationwide, requiring very little capital compared to traditional brick-and-mortar franchises. And it’s not only a bonus that so many of them have been from diverse immigrant backgrounds, many naturalized citizens now, but it’s a source of pride for us.”
Despite its urban and suburban omnipresence, outside of California, for example, sushi was decidedly foreign in mid-tier grocery a decade ago, according to Stacy Kwon, JFE president. “Along with the high-end appeal of sushi there were also a lot of customers unfamiliar with it. So we focused a lot on sampling to convert the less-familiar customers to sushi lovers. In hindsight, and judging from our very vocal sushi fans now, you could say we created a bit of a frenzy,” Kwon added with a smile.
While still a visible grocery presence in more than 100 Kroger stores in the Lone Star state alone, Snowfox debuted its first brick-and-mortar restaurants this year far afield with three locations in Seoul, Korea’s famous Gangnam district. As you saw in the last Snowfox Standard, the look is well-lighted, sleek and contemporary with a boutique feel that focuses on very visual food – sushi, salads and the daily-ground coffee ubiquitous to the neighborhood.
I don’t see any limits to this.
Snowfox started small but decisively. In 2005 JFE founder Kim, a Korean immigrant to Houston, saw a small sushi kiosk in a Kroger on FM 1960 near Spring, Texas. By the end of the year he had bought all 10 area kiosks from their owner. To many of Kim’s friends the idea of building upon that one location with a type of food unfamiliar to most shoppers didn’t seem like a wise investment. But Kim saw a cuisine that, with the right strategy to educate curious customers, could become a whole new category of food business – Asian grab-n-go.
“I saw a basically undeveloped food category that was not only visually appealing but convenient for people on the go. There was no reason, based on the reactions we were getting to the bold flavors and the authentic feel of the whole thing, that we couldn’t turn everybody on to these flavors and in their neighborhood.”
Kim says he succeeded at creating a buzz by first insisting host grocers only offer sushi with a visible Snowfox chef as opposed to delivery, bringing back to hospitality and “show business” sushi was known for but missing in its grocery setting.
Eventually his vision would also evolve to swapping stereotypical Asian décor, packaging and uniforms often seen in mall food courts–and in his competitors’ kiosks, Kim pointed out–for a more contemporary look. The new aesthetic, he said, was essential to demystifying the cuisine but also putting the focus on its visual appeal and creating a unique food category.
Reflecting on sticking to these key principles and growing from a handful of kiosks to hundreds, Kim doesn’t seem to seem to be resting on the past decade’s achievements. “I don’t see any limits to this… to Snowfox becoming synonymous with sophisticated, delicious grab-n-go worldwide. I dream big, but it’s served our clients and thousands of small business owners well,” Kim laughed.
As we reflect on the last 10 years of growth, we’re especially thankful to every chef whose skill, customer service and belief in our dream have contributed to it. We look forward to chronicling your achievements in future editions of the Standard.