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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Plate lunches conquer Mainland

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Eddie Flores, right, president and CEO of L&L restaurants, expects to open his 100th Mainland eatery by February. With him are employees Elisia Flores, left, who is his daughter, and Eva Kim, outside one of L&L's Honolulu restaurants.

Advertiser library photo


Island-style plate lunch restaurants are spreading so fast on the Mainland that Eddie Flores, Jr. imagines a day — maybe five years from now — when his chain of restaurants will no longer be called L&L Drive-Inn in Hawai'i.

Flores, L&L's president and chief executive officer, plans to rename all 50 Hawai'i restaurants L&L Hawaiian BBQ — just like the 100 L&L Hawaiian BBQ restaurants that Flores expects to see operating on the Mainland by February.

"It's getting turned around," Flores said. "Tourists are coming to us looking for Hawaiian BBQ because they ate it in California. So the local L&Ls are benefitting from the Mainland operation."

Five years ago, Flores named his first Mainland restaurant in West Covina, Calif., L&L Hawaiian BBQ because he figured customers wouldn't understand the L&L Drive-Inn name and what he was selling.

There are now almost 50 L&Ls just in Southern California, where Flores finds himself and his franchisees competing against such upstarts as Aloha Hawaiian BBQ, Hawaiian Beach BBQ, Ohana Hawaiian Island BBQ, Ono Hawaiian BBQ, Ono Ono Hawaiian Barbecue, Q&Q Hawaiian BBQ and dozens of others bearing names such as Da Kine, Hana Hou, Grindz and Shakas.

"When we first opened up in California everybody told me, 'Eddie, it's not going to work. Who's going to eat plate lunches, especially in California where they're much more health-conscious?' " Flores said. "My banker, my wife — everybody — said, 'Don't try it.' Now (customers) are all standing in line. We created the plate-lunch craze on the Mainland. Pretty soon there'll be more copycats than us."

The folks at L&L's main Mainland competitor, Ono Hawaiian BBQ, are certainly trying.

While L&Ls are popping up in nine states and as far away as New York, Ono Hawaiian BBQ in the last 3 1/2 years has opened 15 plate-lunch restaurants in California and four in Arizona, with plans for 10 more in the next several months.

One of Ono Hawaiian's partners, Josh Liang, 27, got his first plate-lunch experiences while on Hawai'i vacations in 1999 and 2002 and has eaten other local food in California cities like San Diego. Liang and his older brother, who are both from Guangzhou, China, and another partner own all of the Ono restaurants.

"L&L — they are the biggest," Liang said by telephone. "Everyone knows them. Everyone recognizes them, both in Hawai'i and over here. But Hawaiian food is basically a collection of different Asian cuisines mixed with American cuisine. It offers a little bit of everything. The portion is good, the value is good, but at the end of the day, the real issue is: How good does your recipe taste?"

Even L&L's recipes haven't survived some Mainland experiments.

The Champagne, Ill., L&L store opened and closed after just one year. Three years ago, two other L&Ls suffered similar fates in Connecticut. And the East Lansing, Mich., L&L continues to struggle, Flores said.

"It's the same mistake," Flores said. "Small town. High concentration of white population. On the West Coast and New York, we don't even have to advertise."

In Arizona, both Ono Hawaiian BBQ and L&L Hawaiian BBQ opened to mixed reviews.

"The fact that Hawaiian plate lunches do not have a healthy aura about them hasn't stopped people," said Howard Seftel, who reviewed both Ono and L&L as restaurant critic for the Arizona Republic newspaper. "It's a ton of food and it's dirt cheap, which appeals to people with not too much money and huge appetites."

In his April review of Ono Hawaiian, which followed a 2004 review of L&L, Seftel wrote about "an explosion of Hawaiian fast-food places" in the Valley of the Sun around Phoenix.

Seftel made several trips to both restaurants and estimates that he ordered everything on the menu, from chicken katsu to "doorstop-size wedges" of Spam musubi.

"You get two to an order," Seftel wrote in his L&L review, "and if you finish them both, try not to operate heavy machinery for a few hours."

In an interview, Seftel said, "I'm not sure how many nuances there are to two scoops of rice, a scoop of mayonnaise-y macaroni salad and some sort of fried animal product."

When Seftel brought the food home, "my wife was like, 'I'm going to eat nine pounds of carbohydrates? You've got to be kidding.' "

Both Ono and L&L remain busy in the Valley of the Sun, Seftel said, "but unless you're an afficionado, I don't think the concept of a plate lunch has penetrated most people's consciousness. Right now, Hawaiian plate lunch here in Arizona is still an ethnic sub-specialty."

The future of L&L's expansion plans now rides with people like Benjamin Gudoy, 34, a graduate of Farrington High School and the University of Hawai'i School of Travel Industry Management.

Gudoy has opened five L&Ls in San Diego and another in Fresno. He expects to open two more in San Jose and San Diego, and has plans for six or seven others around San Diego.

Another 20 or so L&L franchises are expected to open within months in the San Francisco area, where they face intense pressure from companies like Ono Hawaiian BBQ.

But Flores looks at the competition as a compliment.

"With all of the people copying us," he said, "we must be doing something right."