Dropping in on L & L
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue is not only surviving, but also thriving under the swell leadership of Elisia Flores.
Why is the leader of the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue empire, Elisia Flores, smiling so much these days? It probably has to do with a couple of momentous and grin-worthy occasions that just occurred or are right around the corner.
Coming up is the much-anticipated L&L convention, scheduled for April 15-16 at Royal Hawaiian Resort and Sheraton Waikīkī. The event, which will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the popular restaurant chain, is expected to draw more than 200 L&L Hawaiian Barbecue franchisees from more than 10 states and Japan.
“I’m super excited about the future,” says Flores, who serves as CEO and vice chair of the company. “We’re at 211 stores right now, so I’m hoping to double our store count in the next 10 years, and really, really celebrate Hawaiian barbecue across the nation.”
But her biggest smile nowadays is reserved for her first child —a boy — who was born on April 1. Equally exciting is that younger sister Ellice is pregnant, too — all of which means the Flores ‘ohana is hitting a growth spurt, and that’s a bit of long-awaited good news for the matriarch of the family, Elaine, and its patriarch, co-founder of the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue franchise, Eddie Jr.
“My parents are both very excited. I think they’ve been wanting to have grandchildren for a while, and I guess we’ve just taken our time … My wife (Megan) and I have been trying for a while, so we’re definitely excited to welcome our baby,” says Flores, adding that bringing a child into the world can be both an “awesome and terrifying” experience.
The same could be said about helping to lead an iconic fast-food company that’s viewed as a member of the family.
“L&L was created before I was created, so it’s been a part of our family my entire life. But it definitely wasn’t as big as it is today when I was growing up … it wasn’t a huge part of our lives at that point,” she explains. “That said, I consider it my older sibling. My parents put time, money, energy, love into the business, just like they did to me and my sister.”
What makes L&L such a beloved eatery is that its food really hits the spot with diners, she notes.
“I’m really proud that almost everything we serve to customers we make from scratch in-house … Everything is cooked fresh to order and because of that, the taste is on another level,” Flores emphasizes. “Beyond that, we give really, really big portions.
“My absolute favorite is our chicken katsu,” she adds, noting that “the crunchiness of the panko that we use and the tartness of the sauce” are what she most enjoys about the popular dish.
Although the 37-year-old Flores now holds a leading position at the company, her business life previously took her on quite a different path.
She graduated from Punahou School and earned her executive MBA from University of California, Los Angeles, and her bachelor’s in finance from University of Southern California. Flores also went to work for General Electric. For more than eight years, she served within the company’s finance management program before assuming the role of corporate auditor, a position that allowed her to travel the world and perform auditing and consulting work across multiple GE firms. Eventually, she was promoted to a senior finance manager position, where she oversaw a portfolio of assets with annual revenue in excess of $750 million.
Yet even after she left Hawai‘i to attend college and work for GE, Flores always knew that she’d eventually return and work for L&L.
“But there was no real expectation of when, and my parents did not give me a lot of pressure to come back and join the family business right away. So, I ended up working at GE and to my surprise, I guess I actually ended up really enjoying it. I loved being on the mainland, I loved traveling to different parts of the country for work,” Flores shares. “At GE, I was in a couple of different leadership roles, so I got to work in different business groups and see different industries.”
In 2014, Flores was named chief financial officer for L&L. Five years later, she was promoted to her current positions, succeeding her father who founded the iconic brand after purchasing the original restaurant on Liliha Street in 1976.
“The biggest transition coming back was I had a very corporate background, versus my dad who is super entrepreneurial. So, coming into the business and working with him has been my greatest joy, but I will have to also say, it’s one of my biggest frustrations, in that we think about business in totally opposite ways,” Flores says.
“After that initial frustration settled, I began to see that it was actually really wonderful because my dad and I work really well together. So, even though we saw things from very different viewpoints, we could talk about it. We could have conversations. I could share with him what I was looking at and how I was thinking about things, and he could share with me how he looked at things. And so, we would have a broader perspective on what the problem or issue was and come up to a better decision.”
Six months after taking the reins, however, the pandemic hit and Flores had to quickly figure out how to keep the company afloat in a fast-changing landscape. Much like other businesses, she was forced to navigate her way around the daily changes to rules regarding masks, barriers, customers’ temperatures, what items to serve and more.
“Thankfully, after the first couple months, things leveled off,” she explains. “Our stores and our franchisees are so fantastic and we really understood then how we had to operate in this COVID environment. Once we got the hang of it, and we got the hang of it very quickly, the stores were able to bounce back and have good sales.
“We were lucky that we were a takeout restaurant before and we just amped up that takeout business, added third-party delivery, added online and app ordering,” she continues. “And so many of our stores in 2020 and 2021 actually ended up with higher sales than they had in 2019, because they were able to adjust really quickly.”
Now, the world is adjusting to a new normal and Flores is thankful that the company has not just survived, but thrived as well.
Currently, there are L&L Hawaiian Barbecue franchises in 14 states across the U.S. There are even two eateries finding success in Japan.
“We’re expanding into regions that we typically haven’t gone into. So, previously we were heavily based on the West Coast and actually we have most of our stores in California, more than we do here in Hawai‘i,” says Flores. “But this year, we’re expanding into South Carolina and into Georgia.”
Many of the franchisees are operated by first- or second-generation immigrants from across Asia. Some decided to open L&L eateries to control their own destinies in the wake of the pandemic.
“All of our stores are franchised and it is so important in terms of having a good relationship with our franchisees. We’re partners in this together … I think it’s such a privilege to be able to help our franchisees with that — to help them create their American dream, to help them create their family legacies,” Flores shares.
“I feel so privileged to be part of a family business in Hawai‘i … As kind of a second-generation person coming in, I just feel very privileged and lucky to take what my dad and his business partner created and carry it forward,” Flores says.