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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, August 21, 2004

100th L&L opens in California

By Ron Staton
Associated Press

When Eddie Flores bought a small walk-up restaurant for his mother on Liliha Street in 1976, he knew nothing about the restaurant business. Neither he nor his mother knew anything about restaurant cooking. "The cleaning lady taught us," Flores said.

Eddie Flores, right, co-owner of L&L Drive-Inn, with his daughter Elisia Flores and employee Eva Kim, at one of the Honolulu locations of the 100-restaurant chain founded in 1976.

Associated Press

Although he claims he still doesn't know how to cook, Flores quickly learned the restaurant business. He and partner Johnson Kam opened their 100th L&L Hawai'i-style fast-food restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area this month.

Flores' first restaurant, about a block from the family home, was owned by a family that sold products from their L&L Dairy. Flores retained the name.

With 100 outlets in the chain, Flores said he and Kam, who joined him in 1976 shortly after the first purchase, are hardly about to stop. He predicts there will be 400 to 500 outlets in five years.

About half of the restaurants are on the Mainland, where they are known as L&L Hawaiian Barbecue and operated under a franchise system. The Hawai'i restaurants, except for one in Waikiki that 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."

Later this year L&L plans to open franchises in Illinois; East Lansing, Mich.; and two in New York City.

"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 said. "We are looking for places with Hawai'i transplants, an Asian population and young people. So far, we have been very lucky."

Plate-lunch attack

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

A plate lunch — two scoops of rice and one scoop of macaroni salad accompanying such entrees such as chicken katsu, beef curry, deep-fried shrimp, mahi-mahi, lemon chicken, barbecue shortribs and hamburger steak — is known as fusion on the Mainland, Flores said. He calls it "mostly Japanese."

And with barbecue in the name, "some people ask where the barbecue sauce is."

"On the Mainland we offer the whole line of Hawaiian food," he said. "We're the only game in town."

L&L doesn't offer the same thing at each place, however — "just what the people want." In New York, for example, Flores expects to make some adjustments, offering more salads, white chicken meat and brown rice.

Room to expand

L&L plans to open 52 locations this year, and has opened about 30 so far. Another 30 to 50 are planned for next year, with Florida, Boston and Oregon as possible locations. L&L expects to open three to five locations each year in Hawai'i.

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.

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

"The big fast-food chains have had to close a lot of restaurants, but our record is very good. We haven't closed any stores except for two in Connecticut."

Sales on the Mainland are higher than in Hawai'i. "It's cheaper to operate," Flores said. "That's the reason we went to the Mainland."

The restaurants average $550,000 a year in sales, he said. They're all franchises, with about half of the franchisees being employees, relatives or friends, and the other half 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 Hawai'i resident Jerome Williams is a part-owner of the just-opened 100th store, in Union City, Calif., in San Francisco's East Bay.

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

Aloha on da menu

Mainland owners, who must sign strict franchise agreements, are required to come to Hawai'i for training. 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. "That's what sets us apart from our imitators," he said.

L&L has numerous Mainland imitators, many with similar names, Flores said. "They see the concept and realize it works. On the Mainland, it's a new concept."

Flores, 57, and Kam, 56, are equal partners in the business. Kam is chairman and Flores is president and chief executive. Flores said he was still working in real estate until last year, when he went full-time with L&L.