Dallas Regional Manager – Sean Lee

Sean Lee came to JFE in 2015 and for his first year and a half managed the company’s business development activities (contracting with new retail clients). Like most JFE managers his foundational training was in operations, and as our Texas region expanded he requested his current position.


“I respect chefs, but I’m
also offering new insights.”

The Snowfox Standard: Do you use any skills you developed at jobs before JFE?
Sean Lee: I worked at LG electronics doing market research, which helped me here in business development, and I’ve also worked in sales. I’ve used a lot of those skills like coming up with different in-store sales strategies. Sales and showcasing our products is not a strong point with a lot of our chefs. They have so many years of experience, but it’s been focused on making sushi. So I want to try to bring something different like the selling side.

TSS: How did developing sales strategies in your previous line of work help you here?
SL: In addition to traditional sales, I also learned to sell myself. When I first come in, franchisees sometimes don’t want to listen. They’re like, “I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I know what I’m doing.” But I try to add some value with things they haven’t thought of before like upselling a product or analyzing sales data differently. I’m not gonna tell them, “Oh you shouldn’t use your knife like that.” I know that’s not my strength. I try to compliment them on what they do well but also educate them on different ideas they may not have thought of before.

TSS: Were their aspects of your personality or of operations that made you yearn to leave business development for ops?
SL: For me what was attractive were the new challenges in general. That’s kind of a good and bad. It’s why I had more than one job before this company. Now I’ve had a chance to stay at a company and keep being challenged. I just wanted to learn different fields in our business—from business development to marketing to working with chefs. And for me operations has been a little more rewarding [than business development] because I’ve been able to help chefs and see the result. It’s a lot of work right now, but that’s still rewarding. I enjoy it.

TSS: What’s the biggest misunderstanding chefs have about improving their sales?
SL: That our company only cares about our cut and not about the chefs’ profits. Some of them have had bad experiences. They invest a lot of money in this. They’re at work every day to feed their family, but sometimes they feel like they’re not the boss because, while they do have ownership, they have to listen to us too. I respect them, but I’m also offering new insights I’ve gained working with different deli merchandisers. We’ve also visited a lot of competitor stores while the Snowfox chefs are kind of tethered to their store.
Sometimes chefs complain about the food costs of sampling, but we’re in the selling business. So to just stay in the kiosk, instead of getting to know customers, isn’t the best use of time—it means we’re not doing our job. Upselling is also a great technique (Editor’s note: See The Secret of the Fox, July/August 2016).
It’s not easy encouraging the chefs because many of them are just satisfied where they are right now. So instead of just going in there and telling them to fix everything, I just try to make them feel confident rather than small. I always try to start with a compliment, “You’re doing this really well, but have you thought about doing this…?” When you provide a technique that adds value, they respect you a little more. I just want to bring some light into their job, make them smile a little bit. I know how hard they work. Our company wouldn’t be where we are right now if it wasn’t for the chefs.

TSS: What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the company’s philosophy or its practices?
SL: I feel like we’re encouraged to share more ideas, and we have a freer exchange of ideas than big corporations. It’s not just one person telling everybody what to do. Like in operations, we have a Kakao chat room where we share different ideas as a team. And upper management is always willing to listen.

TSS: If you were mentoring a new manager here, what advice would you give them? What skills do they need?
SL: It really depends on the region you go to because the parties you work with are different in each one. But working with franchisees in general, my advice would be to listen first then try to provide new ideas based on what they’re not doing well. But you have to listen first; and get to know each chef and their customers.
And in a new job, also try to learn as much as you can, even if you don’t like that specific job. Ultimately you’ll find something you like, and you’ll be able to add a lot of value even from that experience.

TSS: What did you take away from your work in business development?
SL: When you’re in operations, you’re with chefs all day so you end up seeing things from their point of view. But when you work with new clients first like I did, you see learn their perspective because you’re with them all day. So I balance those two sides. Deli merchandisers now are working in a very competitive grocery environment. And after spending so much time hearing their goals, I’m definitely bringing that point of view. In the end we all want to sell more and succeed. TSS