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TheBuzz

BY ERIKA ENGLE

Sunday, February 17, 2002



art
PHOTO COURTESY OF L&L DRIVE-INN
Local restaurant chain L&L Drive-Inn is continuing to expand its presence on the mainland, planning to open six restaurants in California in the next two months




L&L chain
makes hay, gets ink


Can you go from ubiquitous to "ubiquitouser?" The Kam and Flores boys can.

L&L Drive-Inn partners Johnson Kam and Eddie Flores are expanding the eatery's empire from 54 locations to 60 and doubling the presence of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue on the West Coast.

"The first one this year is opening around the 23rd of this month in Carson (Calif.)," Flores said, with others slated to open within two months around Long Beach, Cerritos, Costa Mesa, San Diego and San Francisco.

Two of the locations will be opened by franchisees who became interested in the business through real estate and contracting work with the company, Flores said, "but we're not actively selling the franchises -- or advertising them." L&L retains an ownership interest in the nonfranchised properties, which is the majority of them.

The franchises will open in Cerritos and Costa Mesa; the latter is owned by real estate broker Vince Kagawan, who has worked with the company on finding locations since before the first mainland restaurant opened in City of Industry, Calif.

"I've been talking to Eddie for years," Kagawan said. He and other Hawaii expatriates who attended college in California "ended up staying, and here there's no place to find an authentic plate lunch-type place." As an owner "I'll have a little bit of Hawaii here all the time," he said.

His L&L will open in early May with two operating partners as part of a lunch and dinner food court inside a Marukai store being built in Costa Mesa, Kagawan said. "Then we'll look for opening another in six months so that we can have a location that can open for breakfast, with loco mocos and stuff like that."

L&L started its non-stop growth around 1991, at the beginning of the recession in Hawaii, Flores said. "After September 11 everyone is contracting, but we're still growing 10 to 15 stores per year."

The company's expansion has been bolstered by its partnership with Pepsi, one of its major suppliers, Flores said. The alliance gives L&L access to demographic information such as income levels and population breakdowns in terms of ethnicity in markets the company explores for growth potential. "We've got it down to a science," he said.

It hasn't gone unnoticed with L&L's recent distinction as one of 50 "Regional Powerhouse Chains" in the industry publication Nation's Restaurant News.

L&L Drive-Inns were included because they are, in Publisher Alan Gould's words, "local heroes to their loyal clientele."

The Jan. 28 magazine article reported systemwide sales for the chain last year at $26.5 million and that per-location sales on the West Coast run from 20 percent to 30 percent higher than the Hawaii stores.

A likely contributing factor: "People drive two hours," from Tacoma, Wash., to the L&L in Hillsboro, Ore., Flores said.

Kagawan has also seen the article. "We're in the same category as major chains," he said, naming In and Out Burger and Ruby's Diner, soon to open in the islands.

The weekly East Bay Express reviewed the food at the Oakland L&L and wrote about it in its Jan. 16 edition. The reviewer was taken with the "bright orange sweet and sour sauce," but didn't seem to appreciate the "industrial brown gravy." The review is online at www.eastbayexpress.com.

"I think Asian food has finally arrived," Flores said. "People are more receptive to eating rice," he said, adding, "people are learning to pronounce chicken katsu."

"Plate lunch is relatively unknown but if I might dare to predict in five to 10 years the plate lunch might be as well known as the taco, hamburger, cajun food or whatever."

Plate lunch proselytizers include former L&L employees who have set up two drive-inn's in the San Francisco area.

"You walk in there and the menus are exactly the same," said Flores. "But they get C or D locations, which are less desirable."

"They cannot get into the shopping center -- because they don't have the financial backing or the track record."

The company Web site at www.lldriveinn.com also indicates a pending location in Seattle as well as an oh-so-natural expansion to Las Vegas.





Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Bulletin.
Call 529-4302, fax 529-4750 or write to Erika Engle,
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu, HI 96813. She can also be reached
at: eengle@starbulletin.com




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