Stacy Kwon’s family immigrated from South Korea to Houston, where they slept in the storage room of a corner store. Now, she’s CEO of Snowfox, a sushi franchise with more than 1,300 full-service kiosks in 38 states and counting.
Sep 15, 2022 Updated Sep 16, 2022 (FranchiseTimes) — At 16 years old, Stacy Kwon found herself taking a shower in the wire-fenced backyard of a convenience store. She built a fort of milk cartons as a privacy screen and only showered at night so neighbors couldn’t see—a far cry from the upper-middle-class amenities she grew up with in South Korea. “That was the beginning of my immigrant life,” she said.
Kwon and her family moved to the U.S. to start a new life after her father lost his business in South Korea. Kwon, her parents and her two older brothers moved in to a corner room of the convenience store where her father worked—it had a bathroom with only a toilet and a hand sink—in Houston’s Fifth Ward in “a very scary neighborhood,” Kwon recalled.
“Every day was survival, dealing with theft, robbery, people with guns, people with knives…it wasn’t the life I expected watching American movies in Korea,” she said.
Once they saved enough to move to a better neighborhood, the Kwons began trying out different businesses and trading up for better opportunities where they thought they could make more money, from grocery stores to ice cream shops.
As the youngest of her siblings, “everyone expects the youngest to pick up English faster. So while trying to survive and learn English, going to school, your whole family is depending on you for communication,” Kwon said. “I was the one who had to call the phone company, look at documents and contracts, differentiate mail from bills—it was tremendous pressure.”
Along the way, Kwon and her brother discovered the simplicity of Japanese-inspired sushi kiosks in grocery stores.
“Everything is done, down to the menu; all you have to do is put in effort and maximize sales and you have your business,” Kwon said.
The thought of being able to offer a simplistic revenue model to other immigrant families, “with me understanding exactly the struggles immigrants go through, it was this amazing opportunity for us to build and roll out more stores for more families to get into this safe, simple business, and they don’t have to go through the struggles I did. I thought it was wonderful, almost a calling.”
Scaling a sushi business
In 2005, Kwon and her family founded JFE Franchising and began running sushi kiosks within five Kroger stores in Houston. Wanting to differentiate their brand by associating it with a friendly, recognizable animal, Kwon settled on Snowfox—another name for the Arctic or white fox that lives in the Northern Hemisphere in Arctic regions—for its symbolism of purity and clarity. “We wanted our sushi to be that image of clean, unpolluted, healthy food,” she said.
Snowfox touts high-end, restaurant-quality sushi with grab-and-go convenience and offers cooked and raw sushi, bento boxes, chef favorites, appetizers and party platters, with the goal of taking “sushi back to its origins of chef-based theatricality.”
Wanting to bring the opportunity to more people, especially immigrant families, Kwon started franchising Snowfox in 2012. Simultaneously, she was promoted from executive vice president to CEO and president of the brand.
“Not that it’s limited to immigrants, but it’s really the hard work that immigrants bring, that ‘I will do anything I can do to make this work and provide for my family’ energy to it, so naturally most of our franchisees are immigrants whose language skills are not that great,” Kwon said.
Kwon and her family have grown Snowfox to more than 1,300 full-service kiosks in the U.S., which are all owned by franchisees. The majority of owners work full time in the business as chefs, and though Snowfox doesn’t typically award multiple units, franchisees often have the opportunity to take over bigger and better-performing locations if they outperform in sales.
“Some companies do take top stores and turn them into corporate models, because they do generate a lot of income, but we decided not to do that and award those sites to the best franchisees,” Kwon said.
Forget whitespace—growing via acquisitions
Despite its swift expansion, Kwon says the company actually sprung from humble beginnings.
“When my father lost his business and hope of rebuilding again in Korea, our family immigrated to the United States,” she says. “I was 16 years old at the time. When we came across the opportunity to operate our first kiosks within Kroger, we realized we found a gem.”
Originally called JFE, the company started with five stores, adopting a franchise model under JFE Franchising Inc. in 2013.
“We loved the idea that every kiosk we open is a job opportunity to another family that may have experienced similar struggles as our family,” says Kwon. “The inspiration of this business started with a family that had a strong drive to provide a safe and successful future for other small business owners.”
125 flights to thank franchisees
In August, Kwon was named one of Houston’s Most Admired CEOs by the Houston Business Journal, which recognized 45 local business leaders based on company impact, civic involvement, career achievement and more. “I went blank. I was raised to be humble,” Kwon said about her reaction to the news. “I was just doing my job and enjoying my job, so I simply say I’m grateful and honored.”
One metric that shows Kwon’s commitment to franchisees: She hopped on a plane a total of 125 times last year to attend new openings and meet new franchisees, retailers and partners.
“I want that white-glove service, as we are the vendor and they’re the customer,” she said. Even COVID-19 didn’t slow down her travel, as Kwon didn’t want to be the kind of CEO who hid behind her desk at home while franchisees were working on the front lines every day.
“Our chefs are working every day providing sushi at their kiosks, and I really respect them for it. The only way to show appreciation is not just sending nice letters or ‘hey I support you’ videos, but actually meeting them at their locations and thanking them,” Kwon said.
“I fly, grab a city bus and go to work. My office is the lounge at the airport. My exercise is the terminal. I’d rather walk than take the tram from terminal A to B,” Kwon added. “I make things work and I enjoy doing it.”