Long before the Snowfox logo went global, when introducing the company often involved explaining its initials (“Japanese Food Express”), Stacy Kwon helped cobble together a handful of promising grocery sushi kiosks… but with a bigger vision in mind. In her first interview with The Standard, Kwon reflects on what it takes to grow an organization and reminisces on her best day ever.
The Snowfox Standard: It’s interesting that JFE’s two largest competitors are based on the east and west coasts while we round out the rivalry here on what’s often called The Third Coast. Was that intentional? What advantages have you found being based out of Houston?
Stacy Kwon: It’s the perfect year to ask that question. Even though Texas is centrally located, we opened grocery and restaurant locations on both coasts this year, California, Oregon and Washington, and then in New York. So with our Florida Sam’s Club locations opening in January, we’re literally on every corner of the map now. But Houston just happened to be where we lived when we started. Business-wise, it’s awesome here because even as we control the market share in other regions, our home state is still our most competitive one. So when we started, we were forced to learn quickly. We also learned how to cater to and persuade customers who weren’t as sushi savvy as in other parts of the country. So in hindsight, it was the perfect place to start and grow. There are also advantages to being centrally located like travel time when our managers and I travel to the other coasts or when they come here. If we had to fly to New York from L.A., instead of from Houston, we’d lose a whole day to travel.
TSS: Other than our stores’ merchandising and appearance, do JFE and Snowfox have a company personality or culture?
SK: I’d say the managers who’ve grown with us and who we attract now are really good natured. They’re calm and reasonable; they’re not impulsive.
TSS: With our regional managers having to be firm in order to enforce our standards, how do you find the balance between somebody who’s not confident enough to deal with all the different franchisee personalities and somebody who’s over-confident?
SK: We want strong people with opinions but also somebody who respects the other person while doing the job. Overconfidence would be ignoring the other person and just demanding what you want. I love confidence, but it has to go hand-in-hand with respect. To me that means you understand that, at the end of the day, that other person has a job to do, too. I personally look for both those traits in every manager we interview.
“Being good to other people becomes a huge asset”
TSS: What part of your leadership personality did you already have when you were younger that still serves you today?
SK: Sometimes my friends and family would tease me about this, and other times they admired it, but I was always super calm no matter how bad a situation was. I can really quietly analyze a situation and think through each possible outcome and solution. [laughing] They described me as “a lake that has no wind”.
TSS: Any guidance for new CEOs on how that trait could come in handy?
SK: Sure. If you show fear and confusion, or indecisiveness, instead of putting your energy into solving the problem, your employees will be scared too and not trust you.
TSS: Based on your experience growing a company, assuming somebody already had the capital to start a small business, what advice would you give them?
SK: Well if I knew that, every day would be a lot easier. So just know that it’s about making mistakes and learning. And when you figure one thing out, you realize you still don’t know enough, so you have to learn more.
TSS: Well let’s take 2017. How will you handle the business in a way that’s different from how you would have handled things, say, 10 years ago.
SK: I don’t think I’ve changed much. I’m pretty confident that I’m on the right track. You just have to be humble and thankful that we’re still here and appreciate the opportunities that we have. We certainly have more people now, employees and clients, so the way I treat those other people is important. There are plenty of little mistakes I’ve made, but those have made me who I am. That’s how you grow, but being good to other people becomes a huge asset. That’s probably the best advice for your previous question.
TSS: What’s your fondest memory at JFE and Snowfox?
SK: The day of our 10th year anniversary [event].
TSS: What made that day special?
SK: It represented the strength of our company and of our teamwork. The strength of the relationships we’ve built. And demonstrating to our friends and family that we were 10 years strong. At the end of the day, I was more certain than ever that we’d be here for our 20th.
TSS: How about on the average week? What’s your definition of a great day at Snowfox?
SK: A great day is any day where we stop and realize that even by opening a single store we just created a job site that will help a chef, his employees, and all their families. TSS