- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

HONOLULU — Eddie Flores bought a small walk-up restaurant for his mother on Honolulu’s Liliha Street in 1976, but he knew nothing about the business, and neither knew anything about restaurant cooking.

“The cleaning lady taught us,” Mr. Flores says.

Although he says he still doesn’t know how to cook, he quickly learned the business. He and Johnson Kam, his partner since soon after the first purchase, have opened 110 L&L; Hawaii-style fast-food restaurants in nine states.

“L&L; will become a brand name,” he predicts. “In five years, I have no doubt we’ll have 400 to 500 L&L; restaurants.”

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

About half of the restaurants are on the mainland, 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 Mr. Flores and Mr. Kam are moving east. “We have restaurants in Arizona, Colorado and Utah, and all three are doing very well. In fact, better than California,” Mr. Flores says. “The reason is a lack of competition. The stores are jam-packed.”

L&L;’s first outpost in Michigan will open in January in East Lansing. There also are L&Ls; in other states: Nevada; Washington; Illinois; and New York, where the first L&L; opened on Fulton Street in Manhattan in November, with another scheduled to open near 34th Street in January.

“There’s no way we can fail in New York City; there are so many people there,” Mr. Flores says.

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

Mr. 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 says.

“Local food” means a Hawaiian 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, mahi-mahi, lemon chicken, barbecued short ribs and hamburger steak.

“The food in our restaurants is mostly Japanese, but on the mainland, it is called fusion,” Mr. Flores says. And with barbecue in the name, “some people ask where the barbecue sauce is.”

L&L; doesn’t offer the same thing at each place, “just what the people want,” he says.

In New York, Mr. Flores planned some menu adjustments — more salads, more white-meat chicken and more brown rice.

Another 30 to 50 L&Ls; are expected to open in 2005, with Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon as possible locations. L&L; also expects to open three to five new locations each year in Hawaii.

Even in California, with about 50 locations, there is room for expansion, Mr. Flores says.

“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 says.

The owners also are looking at Asia.

“I think the Tokyo market is ready for us,” Mr. Flores says. “China, maybe in five years. We’re looking for partners to lessen the risk.”

So far, they haven’t looked back. “The big chains have had to close a lot of restaurants, but our record is very good,” he says. “We haven’t closed any stores except for two in Connecticut.”

Sales on the mainland also are higher than in Hawaii. “It’s cheaper to operate; that’s the reason we went to the mainland,” he says. The restaurants average $550,000 a year in sales, he says.

They’re also all franchises, and about half of the franchisees are employees, relatives or friends, with the other half interested strangers, Mr. Flores says. He and Mr. 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 this year in Union City, Calif.

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 Mr. Mili, a tight end for the Seahawks, cut his finger learning how to cut chicken, Mr. Flores says.

Mr. Flores also tells the mainland franchisees that they must communicate the “aloha spirit” — a Hawaiian tradition of kindness and welcoming. “That’s what sets us apart,” he says.

• • •

L&L Hawaiian Barbecue: More than 100 locations in Hawaii, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Washington state, Illinois and New York. For more information, visit www.hawaiianbarbecue.com or call 808/951-9888.

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