L&L Hawaiian BBQ manager Christina Escobar explains the menu to Nathalie Medina in Los Angeles. L&L started when Eddie Flores bought a small restaurant for his mother in 1976.

L&L had small, slow start
but it’s moving fast now

When Eddie Flores bought a small walk-up restaurant for his mother on Honolulu's Liliha Street in 1976, he knew nothing about the business, and neither he nor his mother knew anything about restaurant cooking.

"The cleaning lady taught us," Flores said.

Room to grow

There are more than 100 L&Ls in Hawaii, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Illinois, New York and Michigan. For more information, visit www.hawaiianbarbecue.com or call 951-9888.

Although he claims he still doesn't know how to cook, he quickly learned the business. He and his partner Johnson Kam, who joined him shortly after his first purchase, have now opened 110 L&L Hawaii-style fast-food restaurants in nine states.

"L&L will become a brand name," he predicted. "In five years, I have no doubt we'll have 400 to 500 L&L restaurants."

The first restaurant, located about a block from the family home, was opened in what had been an outlet store for a local business called L&L Dairy. Flores kept L&L in the name.

About half of the restaurants are on the mainland, where they are known as L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. The Hawaii restaurants, except for one in Waikiki which also carries the "barbecue" name, are known as L&L Drive-Inn.

Most of the mainland restaurants are on the West Coast, but Flores and Kam are moving east.

"We have restaurants in Arizona, Colorado and Utah, and all three are doing very well -- in fact, better than California," Flores said. "The reason is a lack of competition. The stores are jam-packed."

L&L's first outpost in Michigan opened in January in East Lansing. There are also L&Ls in Nevada, Washington, Illinois and New York, where the first L&L opened on Fulton Street in Manhattan in November and another opened near 34th Street in January.

"There's no way we can fail in New York City; there are so many people there," Flores said.

"We don't do demographics before selecting a location. It's just a lot of gut feeling," he added. "We are looking for places with Hawaii transplants, an Asian population and young people. So far, we have been very lucky."

Flores tells the story of a man who drove an hour to a ferry, caught the ferry and then drove another half-hour just to eat in an L&L in Seattle. "Some people haven't seen local food since they left Hawaii," he said.

"Local food" means a Hawaii plate lunch -- two large scoops of rice and one scoop of macaroni salad accompanying such entrees such as chicken katsu (deep-fried), beef curry, deep-fried shrimp, mahimahi, lemon chicken, barbecue short ribs and hamburger steak.

"The food in our restaurants is mostly Japanese, but on the mainland it is called fusion," he said. And with barbecue in the name, "some people ask where the barbecue sauce is."

Another 30 to 50 L&Ls are expected to open this year, with Florida, Boston and Oregon as possible locations. L&L expects to open three to five new locations each year in Hawaii.

But even in California, with about 50 locations, there is room for expansion, Flores said.

"We have 27 in Los Angeles, and that can double; eight in San Francisco, and that area also can grow; five or six in San Diego; and two in Sacramento with a third to open soon," he said.

Flores and Kam also are looking at Asia.

"I think the Tokyo market is ready for us," Flores said. "China maybe in five years. We're looking for partners to lessen the risk."

Sales on the mainland are higher than in Hawaii. "It's cheaper to operate; that's the reason we went to the mainland," he said.

The restaurants are successful, averaging $550,000 a year in sales, he said.

They're also all franchises, and about half of the franchisees are employees, relatives or friends, with the other half being interested strangers, Flores said. He and Kam have an interest in about 20 of the outlets, but their company doesn't own any.

San Francisco Giants pitcher and former Hawaii resident Jerome Williams is a part-owner of the chain's 100th store, which opened last year in Union City, Calif., in the East Bay.

The franchisees of the 99th outlet, in Provo, Utah, are Seattle Seahawk and former Hawaii resident Itula Mili, former Seahawk Dustin Johnson and former Carolina Panther Spencer Reid. The three played football at Brigham Young University in Provo.

Mainland owners, who must sign strict franchise agreements, are required to come to Hawaii for training, and Mili, a pass receiver for the Seahawks, cut his finger learning how to cut chicken, Flores said.

Flores also tells the mainland franchisees they must communicate the "aloha spirit," a Hawaii tradition of kindness and welcoming others.

"That's what sets us apart," he says.

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