THE WORD FAMILY COMES UP A LOT AT JFE. IN SOME INSTANCES, A CHEF WE INTERVIEW FOR THE MAGAZINE WILL KINDLY USE THE WORD AS A METAPHOR FOR THE COMPANY. Or at a headquarters gathering, we get a sense of the word when we realize the 10-year-old kid greeting us is the toddler whose cheek we pinched a few years ago. It’s about some things staying the same and some things changing. The median age of our managers and the Asian cultural background many share sets their personal story around Chapter 3 “Second Baby on the Way”.
Jun Hyun, at 35, is not unusual in this regard. Nor does his restaurant background set him apart. Like several managers here, Hyun’s marriage of 10 years coincided with his move to the U.S. from his native Korea. The couple would welcome a daughter a few years after that.
However, a family value that Hyun seems to embody on and off the job—from the physical sense of urgency one observes in him to the way he discusses people who count on him—is taking responsibility.
Hyun was perhaps the first hire to represent JFE’s cultural sea change after concerns developed about how regional managers treated chefs and, frankly speaking, the integrity required in a position wielding financial power. In candid moments with chefs and our staff, Hyun exudes both amiability and honesty.
Jun Hyun started at JFE in February of 2013 as the assistant regional manager for Texas. Now, as Regional Manager, his extended family, so to speak, is comprised of 109 Snowfox locations in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
Hyun got his degree in tourism management, but his formative adult leadership experience was as a young Army artillery officer. Since Korea requires two years’ service by adult men, Hyun says he enrolled in his university’s ROTC (officer training) program so he could be in a leadership position while fulfilling the requirement.
His toughest assignment was serving at the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea, a place that resonates with history and geopolitical tension. When he surprised me with this line of his resume, I refrained from making a too-easy joke about how that experience must be helpful in facilitating client grocer and chef relations.
Having acquired some restaurant experience in college, Hyun says he originally came to Houston with the thought of getting a master’s degree in hotel and restaurant management. But this goal gradually got pushed aside as he got more involved in restaurant work, which Hyun says was the leadership path he saw as friendliest to immigrants.
It was in his first Houston restaurant job that he learned to roll sushi, and in time he took on management positions. By 2011, with a baby on the way, Hyun says he was fully invested in taking care of his family by seeking greater opportunity through restaurant leadership.
At the time Jun Hyun started his Snowfox tenure, our Texas region didn’t include Arkansas yet. But 80 stores and working under the gaze of our headquarters leadership sounds like plenty to cut his teeth on.
Along the way he also developed our sushi academy curriculum before we had a full-time instructor. The academy, of course, plays a critical role in both the food safety education of our franchisees and in culinary quality control and merchandising.
In his third year now, when Hyun is asked to reflect on how he has succeeded in our largest branch, he’s proudest of his chef skills and how they aid his work.
“Chefs are more likely to listen to me on a policy or procedure if they know I understand how tough it might be. Likewise where a branch manager without a culinary background sees a chef doing something that looks strange, when I see it I know, ‘Ah, that towel is to keep their knife clean’. So I can find a workaround solution for the chef if their technique doesn’t comply with a policy or regulation.”
Chefs can also count on Hyun to help them navigate all the company’s changes and improvements in another way. He clarifies, “As much as the company knows about operations, they can’t know everything about what it’s like on the chef’s end to prepare a new menu item or use a new container. By communicating between both parties, I can either help the chef adapt or convince our company to improve a process or product. This is why I’m here.”
Hyun says 2016 has been his busiest year. It’s rare for a week to go by that I don’t see him either having an in-store conversation with a client’s brass or fielding a phone call from their deli merchandiser to discuss their vision for sushi and hot food. This summer Hyun even added a client, opening Snowfox’s first WinCo Foods Texas kiosk in Denton, a Fort Worth suburb. He has another slated in September; he’s scheduled to shepherd three more Kroger openings by the end of the year.
Still, Hyun echoes a common sentiment of managers we’ve spoken to: work/life balance is possible here. “My wife actually is the best spokesperson for JFE,” he says. “She remembers when I was opening and closing the restaurant, so I barely knew my daughter. She loves this company!”
Jun Hyun speaks quickly but with warmth in his voice. He’s at his desk at just after three in the afternoon.
I’m listening to him on the phone with what must be a chef. Hyun is insisting to the man on the other end of the line that he must find a way to follow the company’s policy on shoplifters. His forehead barely conceals a trickle of perspiration as the air conditioning of the giant window-lined, high-ceilinged room tries to fight Houston’s oppressive 100-degree heat.
Now I can hear the chef raising his voice through the phone. But somehow Hyun still smiles several times in the debate, his insistence alternating with soothing tones of reassurance. “There are a lot of good reasons Kroger doesn’t want us to stop people,” he tells the chef. “They’re trained in the legal issues and when to stop someone.”
“But this situation…” the chef says audibly through Hyun’s cell phone. Hyun continues, “And they know when they have to just let it go.”
Hyun explains to me after the call, “I’d normally have a conversation like that face to face in the store, but this came up this afternoon. I need to make sure the store manager knows it’s been resolved.”
I observe that the chef sounded pretty angry. “This business is his whole life,” Hyun says. “When they think somebody has stolen from them, it’s not just the food cost. It’s also the label expense, the package, their labor making it…”
“I understand,” Hyun stresses, “but I told him if we just greet every customer, we’ll never have an increase in shoplifting. This is the price of business just like disposing of the old packages each day.”
On a positive note, Hyun points out that Snowfox is also blessed with a few franchisees who seem to make a lot of money and, at the same time, have minimal conflict with the company and our grocery client. “Their secret?” I inquired.
Hyun closes his eyes in thought then replies confidently, “They focus on the areas of their business that they can control.”
JFE President Stacy Kwon was able to shed light on the mindset that best guides Snowfox managers in difficult negotiations. “In years past, our managers were capable, but I think they saw the relationship with chefs as more like a boss and his or her employee,” Kwon says. “Our regional managers now try to balance getting the job done with also respecting chefs.”
“But that’s not a trained skill,” adds Kwon. “It comes naturally to this group because a few years ago we started looking for that personality trait when we interviewed manager candidates.”
Because all of our assistant branch managers start in Houston, Hyun actually trained most of the current cadre including ones who’ve been promoted to branch manager.
Hyun describes that contribution as his proudest. I asked him what he found to be the toughest part of training new managers.
Young managers, he answers, especially ones new to food service, have to learn how to both be tough with chefs when needed and then swing to the other side of the spectrum and praise them when they do well.
“The Army troops I led in Korea when I was young were really diverse,” Hyun says. “Some came from poverty or a rough background. To a JFE manager trainee, our chefs can be like that personality-wise. But in the military, we made one community.”
“With chefs, it’s the same thing. We have to find a common goal that binds us together. And sometimes we need to encourage them. They work every day of the week and barely see the sky outside sometimes. I tell manager trainees, ‘Buy a chef a cup of coffee and tell them what you love about the way they run their business.’ The most important thing to reinforce in younger managers is respect.”
How does peace, love, and understanding, to borrow the rock song title, work as a management prescription when a chef simply must comply with a policy? Hyun says with a grin, “I tell the chef, ‘Try it first, then complain.’”
I asked him if giving more chefs the benefit of the doubt ever made it hard to explain errors to client grocers without throwing the chef under the bus. Hyun shrugs off my concern. It seems the same humility implied in that respect comes in handy when absorbing criticism for the team. He can take it. And if we retain a great chef who made a mistake, Hyun adds, the client still wins.
“I was a soldier. As an officer, I had a team of 30 or so troops. When they made a mistake, it was my mistake. I look at our chefs as a team. Today when I have to go to a Kroger or WinCo merchandiser to explain a problem and our solution, I say, ‘I’m sorry. That’s on me.’”
With a breadth of well-earned duties—from R & D culinary consultation to opening around a dozen new stores in the last year alone—Hyun clearly views taking responsibility as his guiding principle.TSS