Getting our brand’s finishing touch to chefs is a tricky business with an interesting back story
It was 2007. The two-year old sushi company’s office and adjoining family garage-sized storage space sat in a small office park bordering a quiet residential neighborhood. Houston’s Spring Branch district, though bordered by freeways and only a 15-minute drive from downtown, was a throwback to small town life.
Over the years, immigrants from Korea and, increasingly, industrious Mexican families had settled into in its older, affordable homes and set up hundreds of small businesses and service companies. Though some of Spring Branch’s neighborhoods were a bit worn down, it had its charms—it wasn’t unusual to catch a glimpse of someone on horseback riding down one of its oak-shaded blocks. The area was also known to take the brunt of the flooding from the Bayou City’s annual tropical storms.
When Tropical Storm Humberto bore down on Houston in August of “07, JFE’s small but vital warehouse flooded. The company’s then-handful of employees pitched in and spent days cleaning up and throwing away thousands of dollars in labels.
In retrospect company leaders recount the event as one of those misfortunes that either beats you down or that you learn from and emerge from stronger than before. But it illustrates how fragile small businesses can be. And to someone knowledgeable about our sushi bars imagining the flood’s operations aftermath, it’s a reminder of how critical our label distribution process is.
For readers unfamiliar with the significance of our labels, here’s a quick rundown: The average Snowfox (then JFE) retail grocery sushi kiosk affixes our brand label to hundreds a freshly-prepared sushi and side item packages daily. A roll contains 500 labels, and needing a different label for every menu item, franchisees will keep anywhere from 30 to 40 rolls on hand.
Naturally, when a label starts running low, a chef will order more, anticipating the turnaround time from placing their order to receiving it. Sushi and Asian food kiosks have limited space, so with a roll measuring six-and-a-half-inches in diameter (and weighing a hefty two pounds), chefs can’t keep more on hand than they absolutely need. If you run out of labels for a New York Crunch roll, you guessed it—you can’t sell any New York Crunch rolls.
And say one of our locations ran out of labels for several menu items. Due to client store and customer expectations, chefs can’t simply put fewer items in the case—what grocers would call “holed out”—nor can they make twice as many packages of a different roll. Our visual hallmark is color and variety. Imagine if McDonald’s ran out of Big Macs so they just made twice as many Filet-O-Fish. This would not be a good thing. (Not to mention millions of rotund American children potentially rioting!)
The image of sopping wet label rolls in JFE’s Westview street flood of “07 stands in contrast with what I saw in the warehouse my first day of work a few years later. Though the company’s digs were still modest, I, having only worked in traditional restaurants, was impressed by the colorful wall of the (now-elevated) racks of labels. I would soon see the labels’ color enhanced with culinary accents in our beautiful store cases.
I quickly realized the label process pipeline was key to the smooth operation of every one of our sushi bars. It was JFE’s sixth year, and we were managing about 130 of them.
Snowfox VP Brian Lee provides a little more insight into what was going on behind the scenes just before my arrival. “Our franchisees today are Mom and Pop set-ups, but at that time JFE itself was a Mom and Pop company,” Lee says. Indeed Snowfox’s current Bingle street warehouse holds over 200 linear feet of 10-foot label racks compared with Westview’s 30 feet. But in those early days the process could still be a handful, says Lee.
JFE’s current Human Resources Director, Christie Pak, who has been with the company longer than anyone except the Chairman and President, was actually in charge of kiosk label sales then, Lee explains. “Christie handled everything, and when she got really busy, everybody—from the president down—would pitch in to help build packages.”
It was this family spirit, says current warehouse manager Jonathan Olvera, that attracted him to JFE. Olvera’s experience included time fulfilling complex orders at electronics and printing giant Hewlett-Packard. Eight months before his 2012 arrival at JFE, we had outgrown our original office and warehouse, moving a few blocks away to our current, larger headquarters. In contrast with our city’s giant corporations, JFE’s close-knit environment still seems suited for 30-year-old Olvera—he was born just two miles away at Spring Branch Hospital.
When he first walked into the Bingle warehouse, Olvera recalls, though he found no natural disasters, and its 32,000 square feet it offered plenty of room to accommodate JFE’s growing label inventory, he did walk into a bit of a mess.
JFE’s rapid expansion had surpassed the logistics experience of the previous warehouse manager, taxed internal office communication, and chefs were complaining. The new warehouse manager was charged with improving customer communication between the headquarters and JFE’s franchise locations, by this time spread among 18 states. Of equal importance, Olvera recounts, the company’s operations staff implored him to reduce complaints about order accuracy.
To set about the challenge, Olvera says, he could see he needed to first reorganize the warehouse. But there was a daunting time management dilemma.
“It was kind of hectic at the beginning,” he says. “Logistics is mostly about organization, knowing where you put everything. If your inventory’s not organized, none of your label orders will be fulfilled properly. But there was very little time for organizing. All the existing orders had to go out quickly so we wouldn’t compound the complaints about timeliness. So I had to work all that in at the same time we were getting orders out.”
Experienced retailers generally agree that the most critical task to ensure customer satisfaction (in our case, the Chef Customer, if you will) is order accuracy. The first step of the order, in which this accuracy can get off on the right foot or go terribly wrong, is the “picking” process, in which a team member builds a customer’s order item by item.
In addition to reorganizing the warehouse, another task that often diverts Olvera from the picking process have been frequent inventories. He explains, “We’ve undergone so much change that we haven’t ordered our label stock in bulk as much as other companies just in case we have to change the labels. It’s understandable from a branding standpoint,” Olvera concedes, “but making the time for frequent inventories while order processing can be tough. And really I need to focus on the picking process to make sure we have satisfied customers. Following up on an order error is down-time not spent fulfilling other orders.”
As a consequence of balancing all these things, Olvera says, it took almost a year to get the warehouse as organized as he needed it, but it paid off–order accuracy has improved by over fifty percent since his arrival.
Olvera’s not the only player on the field, of course. In addition to headquarters personnel who negotiate label prices with our suppliers and audit our inventories, Olvera also has an important teammate in Jim Kim Holdings receptionist A.P. “Ann” Lim.
Receptionist may not be an adequate description for Lim. As an inextricable part of the ordering process, she could be considered, along with Olvera, the vocational descendant of Christie Pak. In addition to being the first smiling face that chefs, vendors and clients see on Bingle, Lim plays a pivotal role in our label system by transferring franchisee orders into QuickBooks, an accounting and payment acceptance program.
A Seoul native who lived in the U.S. for 10 years from the ‘90s to the ‘00s before recently moving back to the States, Lim’s bilingual skills and cultural understanding no doubt help her communicate more easily with chefs than receptionists who only spoke English.
Interestingly, when Lim started in February of last year, she was the first Asian receptionist at JFE in three years. A resident of Katy, which has one of the largest concentrations of Korean immigrants in the Houston area, she says she respects and relates with our many immigrant small business owners.
In just that first year, but typical for a Jim Kim team member, Lim has already adapted to a lot of changes to the label system, particularly an increase in menu items. “When I started we didn’t have hot food yet,” she says. “And the Premium items [now on the main menu] are selling more now.”
Both Olvera and Lim are quick to offer an essential tip for chefs to ensure the system works smoothly for all franchisees: before calling or emailing about your order status, or asking questions about a new policy or procedure, be sure to check your Rackspace in-box for updates.
Though, as Lim is quick to say, “I like helping chefs. I feel good when I help them do their job,” when she or Jon Olvera check the system for an order that’s already been fulfilled with an email already sent to the chef, or when they answer a question that has already been answered in a chef memo, it adds to longer call times at reception, inevitably hurting service for all chefs.
Overall, franchisees we spoke to who’ve been at JFE since Olvera implemented his fixes have noticed the positive changes. “These days I receive my label shipment two to three days earlier than we used to,” said Snowfox Virginia franchisee Rahn Binkley, who operates a handful of popular stores in the state’s New River Valley.
Remarking on technology changes inside and outside of JFE, the chef said, “I still remember having to fax an order a few years ago. Not only is the email system easier, but with smart phones now I can send an order or receive a confirmation even when I’m between stores.”
Binkley also noted changes the last year in order confirmations. “It’s nice to get a pleasant reply to my email the same day,” she said.
Jon Olvera, reflecting on all the improvements, even amidst constant growth and merchandising changes, echoes Binkley’s sentiment. “With the warehouse organized, I have a little more time to QC (quality control) orders, so complaints are down to fewer than 10 percent of them,” he says.
The giant rows of giant label racks behind Olvera’s square processing area now shine with a silver tinge of thousands of newly-arrived labels in Snowfox’s new color scheme.
Despite our growth–the entire footprint of JFE’s original flood-prone Westview office and warehouse could fit in one corner of today’s warehouse–the company can now focus on gradual and less dramatic challenges than those posed by Mother Nature. With a firm grasp on his domain, Jon Olvera, along with an increasingly experienced Bingle team, seems ready to take the next challenge in stride.