L&L Hawaiian Barbecue
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue is taking its unique cuisine far beyond its island origins
thanks to its loyal customer following and positive franchisee interest.
By Jim Harris
The opening of a new L&L Hawaiian Barbecue is usually a major event. When the franchise opened its first location outside of its namesake state in 1999, hundreds of people were waiting outside despite limited advertising or promotion.
Many of the people waiting outside that restaurant in California were already aware of the brand, which had opened more than 40 franchises in Hawaii at that point. “We were a name brand in Hawaii, and people from Hawaii are very loyal to us,” says Eddie Flores, Jr., the franchise’s president and co—founder. “We opened our first mainland franchise in California because of the number of people originally from Hawaii.”
More recently, a new L&L Hawaiian Barbecue location in Dallas had more than 100 people waiting at the door as a result of positive word-of-mouth. The only advance promotion was an interview Flores had done with a local radio station. “Our greatest strength is our brand,” Flores says. “If you talk to anyone from Hawaii, they know our brand.”
Part of the Family
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue originated in 1976, when Flores and partner Johnson Kam purchased the L&L Drive Inn, a restaurant located a block away from Flores’ home in Honolulu. The restaurant was given to Flores’ mother as a gift, as Flores and his partner at the time had concentrated their business efforts in real estate, with a focus on acquiring and selling restaurants and bars.
Flores assumed control of the business in 1990 and decided to expand the franchise. All locations at the time used the L&L Drive Inn branding. “Our system was very unique early on, because we would find a location, build it up and then sell it to our employees,” Flores says, noting that many early franchisees were Chinese immigrants to Hawaii. “I wanted to give them the opportunity to have their own business.”
The decision to expand the franchise to the mainland United States in 1999 was accompanied by new branding. Anticipating the unfamiliarity of the concept, Flores repackaged it as L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. “There have been a lot of copycats and businesses with similar names, but we are the original Hawaiian barbecue,” he says.
Today, the concept has more than 135 locations in California as well as 16 locations in and around Las Vegas, Nev., where there are more than 100,000 people who came from Hawaii. L&L Hawaiian Barbecue has a more than 200 locations total, including in Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Texas and New York. The company also has franchises in American Samoa, New Zealand, Japan, China, Guam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The franchise retains a decentralized system of ownership, through which each restaurant operates as a separately incorporated profit center run by individual owners or corporate partners. Franchise fees are low — only four percent of each location’s earnings are given as royalties to the company. One percent of that amount is used for advertising. “We haven’t had a major dispute between franchisees and the franchisor organization since we’ve been in business,” Flores says. “We have a lot of happy franchisees, because we provide them good support, and they’re able to make money. In Hawaii, our locations only close when a lease expires or the owner retires.”
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue seeks new franchisees with financial stability that are willing to commit to the chain’s concept. New franchisees spend a month in Hawaii, where they not only learn how to prepare the company’s food, but also train in the “aloha spirit,” the unique hospitality culture native to Hawaii. “When you join us, you become part of our ‘ohana, ‘ or family,” he adds. “We treat you as part of our family, not as an outsider, and will help you be successful any way we can.”
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue serves a unique blend of Asian and American fusion cuisine. The franchise’s culinary concept is based around the traditional Hawaiian plate lunch, consists of two servings of rice, a serving of macaroni salad and a generous helping of a hot entrée, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue’s plate lunches are made to order. “We’re known for having big portions, cooking everything fresh, and offering reasonable prices,” Flores notes.
Many of the franchise’s entrees are teriyaki—based, giving them the barbecue-type flavor suggested by the company’s name. L&L Hawaiian Barbecue’s entrees include chicken katsu, a breaded chicken dish with a special dipping sauce; and the “Loco Moco,” which includes hamburger patties, two eggs and gravy.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue also offers regional favorites developed by its chefs including musubi, a sushi—like dish that includes a block of rice with one of several choices of meat wrapped in seaweed. Meat choices include Spam, Portuguese sausage, chicken katsu or barbecue chicken.
Several dishes developed by L&L Hawaiian Barbecue have later made their way onto other restaurants’ menus. “We are the forerunners on a lot of dishes for quick service restaurants,” Flores says, citing its serving of brown rice more than 20 years ago as an example. More recently, the company developed and started serving the ramen burger — a hamburger between two noodle patties — which has also surfaced in outside restaurants.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue also offers lower calorie options including salads and seafood-based dishes.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue is celebrating its 40 anniversary this year. The company marked the occasion April 7 by offering a 40-cent dinner plate at one of its original locations.
The company continues to seek expansion opportunities, particularly in the Midwest. “We haven’t gone much beyond the West Coast,” Flores says. L&L Hawaiian Barbecue took a big step in this direction last year, when it opened a location in Tennessee. The location was partially inspired by Marcus Mariota, the Hawaiian-born 2014 Heisman Trophy winning quarterback drafted by the Tennessee Titans in 2015, as well as interest from local franchisees. “Locations like this come to us from word of mouth — people call us,” Flores adds.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue continues to expand at a rate of roughly 10 to 20 new locations per year. In addition to expanding in the Continental United States, the company also has its eyes on sites in Europe, which Flores has visited several times in recent years. “Our company is going to be global,” he says.