HE’S NEARING HIS FIFTH YEAR WITH THE COMPANY, AND THERE ARE FEW WHO KNOW AS MUCH ABOUT WHERE WE’VE COME FROM. Like only a handful of us, when Kevin Yang started at the company JFE had few enough stores that we only needed a headquarters the size of a two-bedroom apartment. Now, hundreds of new stores later, he’s an ambassador to our clients in more than 20 states.
Yang’s job as National Operations Director isn’t a new position here. When he started in fall of 2011, JFE was already in more than 10 states. But, as Yang explains, his position had fewer administrative responsibilities then and was less strategic than the way we now partner with grocery executives.
More than just an operations technician, Yang believes in the brand. “This is an amazing time to be here, whether it’s as a manager or franchisee, because company decisions promote growth.”
“But they’re not solely concerned with growing,” he says. “We now deliberately consider the effects of a decision of each stakeholder.”
Like all managers here, Yang first learned the ways we were trying to stand out from our competitors. Focusing on our case merchandising and on consistent sampling, he fondly recalls that he also learned them from Snowfox’s architect, Jim Kim.
JFE had hire a then-37-year-old Yang to manage our Virginia office. However, the first task asked of him was to evaluate stores that didn’t belong to us yet.
Along with the company’s operations director and Kim, president at the time, Yang examined a swath of Georgia stores we had set our sights on. The venture was ill-fated due to an apparent change of heart by the grocery division’s deli merchandiser; but the work gave Yang an opportunity to learn the value of how we evaluate a store’s ability to survive and thrive.
These days the stores within his scope of responsibility represent every size of city and town, every demographic. Analyzing the Georgia stores, Yang says, turned out to be good preparation for his future duties. It taught him how we predict the success of a market, a kiosk format, and of an individual chef.
A few months later, the Virginia management slot he was originally slated for having been filled, Kevin Yang became JFE’s Colorado regional manager.
Yang describes working with the Kroger banners King Soopers and City Market, at the time with more than 70 stores combined, as both stressful and rewarding. “They’re probably the most assertive of our clients in terms of their vision for sushi. But with that also comes a lot of support from Soopers.”
Thus, he says, it was the ideal regional office in which to practice the client relations required by the operations director job today.
If the owner has this type of fun, positive mental outlook, I need to learn from him!
Along with JFE’s breathtaking growth in recent years have also come a few hard lessons. One near-miss that provided Yang with insight he no doubt uses today, occurred after his two years at the helm in Colorado.
Called to our Houston headquarters, he was briefed that we were at risk of losing an entire region with our largest client. In its Virginia district, Kroger was in an extremely competitive environment for grocers. As the Cincinnati-based grocer competed there with East Coast heavyweights like Harris Teeter and Martin’s, tensions were high and their sushi sales goals more demanding.
Nicknamed The Old Dominion, Virginia was one of the United States’ original colonies; likewise it was JFE’s second branch. Losing it was out of the question.
Moving to Virginia, Yang says he used every lesson in his two-and-a-half years of JFE experience and set about regaining the client’s confidence. As always, our competitors were waiting in the wings to grab the stores if we failed. Fortunately, he and the Virginia chefs rose to the task, and, though the region is still more competitive than ever, today we operate more than 90 stores there.
After being promoted to assistant operations director and briefly assisting all branches from Virginia, in February of 2015 Yang moved to Houston and assumed his current duties as national operations director. Right now, with two branches recently gaining second assistants based on their sales increases, he’s responsible for 12 managers serving nine different grocery banners. Our Michigan expansion (see Let’s Get Excited on page 2) will create an additional branch office.
“Though I’m still on the road engaging more with clients than we required of my predecessor”, says Yang, “the job definitely requires broader oversight from here in Houston than before I started.”
The job’s originally narrow focus stemmed from what we had to do to acquire our first one hundred or so stores. In order to keep our promises to grocery clients about what we would do differently than our competitors, we had to do a lot of store-level quality assurance on production and merchandising. Simply put, the ops director spent a lot of travel time showing new branch managers and chefs exactly how to maintain our standards.
However, according to Yang, the position’s responsibilities had become too narrow, neglecting two areas: first, the personal relationship clients sometimes need with someone higher than the branch; and second, attention to strategic functions like data and sales analysis.
The English level required by these new duties also made Yang a good fit. The Incheon, Korea, native speaks it in an intense but thoughtful, well-studied way, that cadence providing a clue to how he manages operations: it’s careful but at a steady pace.
Now, five years after Yang started with JFE, his regional managers have a combined total of 33 years supervising Snowfox sushi bars. That’s good for him and great news for the company’s franchisees in terms of support, the 42-year-old points out.
Yang understands how rare a support network can be to small businesses. Prior to a career at JFE catching his eye, for several years he ran a global logistics company he’d bought from his boss, its owner. Yang says owning his own business gave him patience with permitting processes, helped him learn the American business and legal landscape, and gave him an eye for detail.
“In transportation you have to oversee every step of the process—from point to point,” he says. “So you have to ensure you’re aware of each aspect of operations so you can identify inefficiencies.”
While Yang’s degree in logistics also assisted him in that career, he found himself longing to be part of a larger team with more growth potential, even if it was in a new industry.
“Working in the same field for almost 10 years, I also needed a new challenge.” He might have stayed in logistics, he says, had he not seen the same playfully-worded job advertisement that our last Meet Your Team subject, John Park, saw that very month. Yang says, “I thought, ‘If the owner has this type of fun, positive mental outlook, I need to learn from him!”
There have been rough patches, the operations director relates, that were necessary for the company’s growth and greater chef opportunity. Yang recalls JFE’s 2012 transition of most Snowfox locations from operating partnerships to legal franchises.
“We really had to do it carefully and keep communication with chefs open,” he says, “because people, understandably, are resistant to change.”
However, Yang explains, the complexity of managing taxation issues for the operating partnership structure was becoming unmanageable. While some franchisees were resistant to the addition of a franchise renewal fee every three years, considering the contemporary brand we want to be, says Yang, the new structure is more in step with the food service industry overall and has created more opportunity for more chefs.
“This is a really great opportunity for immigrants and others to start their own business,” Yang adds. “It would cost 10 times more to franchise a McDonalds’ or a Panera Bread, for example. This format is also extremely profitable relative to a franchisee’s investment. And operating under the umbrella of a grocer like Cub Foods, for example, or Kroger, is a lot safer than a solo Mom-and-Pop enterprise,” says Yang.
In that more common restaurant setting, they could lose their entire business simply from a competitor setting up shop across the street, he adds. “Then there’s the stress of crime and safety that a convenience store owner has to deal with. And in traditional small business there are fixed expenses like rent that our chefs don’t have to deal with, that just loom on the horizon even when sales are down.”
Yang clearly believes in JFE and Snowfox’s vision, but asked for any other reasons for his longevity here, for which hospitality managers aren’t necessarily known, he adds, “Our company is very sensitive to market demands and isn’t afraid of changes. That keeps it exciting here, and it’s rewarding to watch our growth.”
Kevin Yang’s frequent smile also indicates the father of three has also found that larger team niche he was seeking and a new way to help business dreamers like himself.
Kevin Yang, with JFE founder Jim Kim, leaves Houston for his Colorado branch position in 2012.