AS THE HUNDREDS OF CHEFS AND MANAGERS WHO WEAR A SNOWFOX BADGE KNOW, THE SOMETIMES-ODD NATURE OF OUR BUSINESS MODEL MEANS OUR WORK IS ALWAYS FRONT AND CENTER FOR ALL TO PRAISE OR CRITICIZE. One department’s work, though, is quietly performed and seldom discussed during the lifespan of our sushi bars even though it’s vital to store performance.
Theirs must be, at times, an overwhelming process. But what’s visible to the casual observer passing by the Franchise Department are two dapper guys intently examining documents on their large monitors. Yes, they’re also on the phone a lot. You’ll hear them explaining things in a careful cadence but with a firm tone like that of a college professor the day before an important exam.
The telltale signs that there may be something more chaotic going on than meets the eye are the stacks of densely packed files that occasionally surround the two men and, looming on the wall above their desks, the whiteboard that seems to overflow with scheduled store openings.
Five or six years ago there was no board. The company has always run lean, preferring to work with a small complement of earnest but whip-smart managers. But at that time, the stop-start nature of developing our business had branch managers more focused more on perfecting existing stores than on managing a steady stream of openings. Although there was the occasional mixed blessing and curse of opening 20 stores in a month, it wasn’t unusual to open just a single store. (Maybe not coincidentally, the same thing can be said of our largest client who has seemingly opened as many stores in the last two years as they did in the prior decade).
These days the presence of not only our full-time manager for recruitment and contract execution, John Park, but a full-time assistant working alongside him reflects a giant sea change in JFE’s behind-the-scenes management.
Like a lot JFE/Snowfox managers, Park boasts a solid restaurant background. But he is our first Meet Your Team subject and one of our few employees who was working specifically as a chef before he started here.
JFE also marked Park’s first office job, but the diverse parties he’s required to satisfy—from our company’s president to hundreds of franchisees, not just one branch—and the poise I’ve observed him display indicate that his three-year tenure in franchise management is a good fit for him.
Although when JFE caught his attention he’d been cooking Asian food for several years, Park says he got his first exposure to sushi when he consulted part time with a JFE competitor. He found he enjoyed this segment of food service and was looking for a career with more advancement and better hours than his night shift restaurant gig. While at the sushi company, Park says, he heard there were great management opportunities in this business model. But when they didn’t offer him a staff position, he returned to his less-than-satisfying restaurant job.
In 2011, like almost all our prospective employees, Park saw a job opening notice in a local newspaper. “In all honesty, I probably would have accepted a full-time job in management from that first sushi company if they had ever offered,” says Park. “But when I saw JFE’s ad, although I was unsure what the job was, it was clear they were growing fast and needed dedicated people.”
He also liked the ad’s whimsical tone “Come have fun with us”, it read.
So, it seems, in hiring Park in 2011, JFE’s leadership saw something in him that our competitor had overlooked. JFE Vice President Brian Lee, his first boss, confirmed as much. “What struck us first about John was his conscientiousness. Of course we needed our staff to have a restaurant foundation, but they have to learn so much about our system that we also need a visible commitment level right out of the gate,” Lee says.
Park’s first duties were in Research and Development consulting on ways to improve or add to JFE’s culinary lineup. The company was considering Park for a branch position when necessity called him to Ohio, temporarily but on short notice, to assist with a surge in store openings there. According to Lee, the challenge also provided the company a chance to assess the chef’s business aptitude.
Considering all the changes and improvements at JFE, I was curious what, to Park’s recollection, we were already doing well when he started four years ago? “Even then we were already perfecting our current business model,” he says, “That is one where the franchisee, when following our guidance, was already yielding a lot more money than they were investing, especially compared to other franchise formats.”
Park explains that his first supervisor, JFE’s prior Operations Director, taught him that even though things like culinary quality are important, above all the kiosks needed to be run as a business—with production efficiency and merchandising focused on sales. At the end of the day, this is a money-making enterprise.
Right Place, Right Person
When JFE was looking to fill the franchise manager opening in 2013, they needed a manager with the standard-but-important skillset typical of our cadre: food service knowledge coupled with strong communication skills.
But President Stacy Kwon points out, she also wanted a certain intangible quality. “The right candidate needed to understand not only the stressors chefs experience,” Kwon says, “but be able to accurately predict what we could expect from chefs in terms of performance. John had demonstrated in his branch assistance opening stores that he understood how to match the right talent to the right locations.”
Park says his biggest challenge so far at JFE occurred in his first few months as franchise recruitment manager: overseeing the transition of hundreds of contracts from an operating partnership to a franchise model. Though it would test his ability to communicate detailed business concepts and soothe concerns of partners in order to ensure Snowfox’s viability for all of us, on the positive side, Park recalls, it allowed him to meet more of our chef partners in a couple of months than most of our managers would meet in a year.
Today his most important skill is fostering constant, open communication with the branches so he can give them timely guidance. “While it’s important for a branch manager to communicate well with the client and with current and potential franchisees”, says Park, “it’s essential they also share everything with me because often the Franchise Department has a piece of the puzzle the branch doesn’t know about.”
Failure to do so, Park relays, can result in missed opportunities that cause delayed openings, falling short of client expectations and unnecessarily agitating franchisees. While it’s less important to whom the branches provide detailed updates, Park says, than that they communicate them—Operations Director Kevin Yang, for example, conducts weekly meetings with them—for his part Park says he has increased the frequency with which he reaches out to branches.
“If a franchisee isn’t meeting a client grocers’ expectations and ours in terms of a positive relationship with the client store team or keeping food safe, and they commit a repeat offense, I won’t be ready to meet our client grocers’ timeline with a qualified replacement if I don’t know there’s a possibility of changing them,” Park emphasizes.
Park’s store placement process, just like our business model’s financial structure, seems built to create the best outcome for all parties. Among the important criteria Park points out are a franchisee’s financial resources. Some less obvious considerations that come into play include the potential franchisee’s ability and desire to relocate and the store neighborhood’s competitor landscape, to coin a phrase.
Although our and our clients’ growth demands we scrutinize first-time franchisees, and Park shoulders the responsibility for these judgments, his background also helps him understand the budding restaurateurs’ perspective. “Even though I receive a paycheck from JFE, I have to find a balance and still work for our franchisee as well,” says Park.
In recruiting franchisees, Park still has to convey this idea. He’s selling success, and there’s no small investment involved.
Though so many Snowfox chefs have remained with us and prospered, when Park conducts the recruitment activities of his department, the 33-year-old is in the persuasion business. More than buying a car, for example, franchisees are undertaking a lifestyle change; they’re investing significant capital on a business endeavor that will impact their and their family’s entire life.
And more often than not, Park is the first person at JFE that a potential lifelong Snowfox chef will meet. So having been at the company for almost half its existence, Park is also highly qualified to weigh in on a question I’ve been dying to ask a profile subject: Does JFE have a “personality”?
“Friendly with very few walls or blocks,” he readily replies. Park adds that, in consideration of how many different languages we work with both at headquarters and in operations, we do so quite smoothly.
He should know. Park and his assistants (including prior assistant MJ Lee, whom, along with manager Ann Lee, he credits for helping organize the department’s maze of records) have developed lasting relationships with hundreds of Mom-and-Pop businesses in Korean, Chinese, and English. Maybe the franchise department’s biggest accomplishment is that English was often used by two non-native speakers to strike these life-changing deals.
The Quiet Engine
When you consider JFE and Snowfox’s growth and achievement, Park seems to have nailed the selection of his first office job. His advice for those transitioning into administrative teamwork with so much at stake? “Think about the office as a community. For that matter, include the client, the franchisee… Sometimes you have to assert yourself on a position, but sometimes you have to step back,” Park says.
“Always holding your microphone and saying what you want to say almost never helps the group,” insists Park. “It’s not about right or wrong. Through listening you might learn something from their perspective.”
Most managers would probably agree that the engine of JFE and Snowfox as organizations is our sales performance. To that end, most of the leaders we profile in The Snowfox Standard are very visible as they cultivate our best practices in the field. However, upon examination it’s equally clear that the dapper, focused fellows under the giant whiteboard putting the right chefs in the right stores are vital to our success.
Park reflects, though humbly, that his peers’ visibility does comes with more praise. “Even though we’re not in the spotlight, even though people may not remember what we did, I’m grateful to JFE for letting me be an essential part of the process. Working behind the scenes is my challenge, but as I’ve seen the results, it’s also my passion!” TSS