How a humble restaurant took over Hawaii, California and beyond


In Hawaii, L&L Drive-Inn is ubiquitous. The red-and-white sign invites customers to experience its comfort food menu of teriyaki-glazed barbecue dishes and other Hawaiian favorites, such as loco moco, kalua pork with cabbage and Spam musubi.

Today, the chain has more than 200 franchises in 15 states, including more than 30 in the Bay Area, serving 20,000 Spam musubi a day, 3 million cups of rice a month and half a million pounds of macaroni salad per year.

Although there are many Hawaiian-style restaurants in the continental United States, very few can claim to have started in Hawaii. How did this restaurant, which started out as a small restaurant in Honolulu, come to conquer Hawaii and beyond?

It all started with a small orange and white apartment building in Honolulu’s Kalihi neighborhood in 1976. L&L Drive-Inn served Hawaii BBQ plate lunches, burgers, loco moco and beef stew. From this unique location, where it still stands today, it expanded across the islands and then to California in 1991 as L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.

As popular as the restaurant is today, its story begins with humble origins: an immigrant family coming to Hawaii in pursuit of the American dream.

Eddie Flores Jr. bought L&L for his mother in 1976. (L&L began as a dairy in the 1950s, named after its founders, the Lees.) Flores had immigrated with his parents from China to Hawaii in the ’60s. Her mother didn’t speak English, but she dreamed of owning a restaurant.

“My father is one of seven,” Flores’ daughter Elisia told SFGATE. “His parents barely had a sixth grade education, found a way to support all their children, immigrated to the United States, didn’t even have enough money to support him that he had to be returned with other family members,” she said. keep on going. “My mother was literally found on the streets of Hong Kong, taken to an orphanage and adopted by a family in Rhode Island.”

Eddie Flores Jr. partnered with Johnson Kam to found L&L Drive-Inn in 1976 and grow it into the brand it is today.

Courtesy of L&L

After acquiring L&L, the Flores partnered with Johnson Kam, another immigrant to Hawaii who had restaurant experience and owned a manapua truck. Together they made the brand what it is today. Kam was responsible for creating the menu and managing operations, while Eddie grew the business and created the franchise model.

Elisia, 37, took the reins as CEO of L&L in 2019. She has grown up around the L&L business all her life and even had her first job as an L&L cashier.

She is proud of her family’s path to success. “For me, it’s a really wonderful story of these two immigrants who arrived with so little and who managed to create this very, very beautiful company little by little,” says Elisia. “And now we in turn have so many franchisees, also immigrants, who are creating their American dream.”

The fast food restaurant is known for serving a wide selection of Hawaiian-style dishes. Born out of Hawaii’s many cultures at a time when immigrants came to the islands from all over the world, the lunch plate is a blend of flavors from all those cultures on a plate consisting of two balls of rice, a salad of macaroni and a protein.

On the L&L menu, barbecue beef, chicken katsu and shrimp with macaroni salad and rice.

On the L&L menu, barbecue beef, katsu chicken and shrimp with macaroni salad and rice.

Courtesy of L&L

Plated lunches from L&L’s menu include a barbecue mix plate with beef, chicken and ribs, a chicken katsu plate with fried boneless chicken, a Hawaiian kalua pork with a cabbage plate and l loco moco plate with two hamburger patties topped with sauce and two fried eggs. More recently, L&L has added healthy options with brown rice and salad.

About 10 years ago he also added Spam musubi, another Hawaii favorite, and it became a hit. It’s so popular that L&L is celebrating an official Spam Musubi day.

“In Hawaii, I’d say our most popular item is chicken katsu. It’s my favorite panko breaded chicken leg, super crispy, super crunchy, and our super sweet and tangy chicken katsu sauce, it’s all made house,” Elisia explains. “On the mainland, the item we sell the most is the Spam musubi…but if we’re talking about the lunch plate, the barbecue mix plate is the most popular.”

Where it all began, the first L&L Drive-Inn location still stands on Liliha Street in the Kalihi neighborhood of Honolulu on the island of Oahu.

Where it all began, the first L&L Drive-Inn location still stands on Liliha Street in the Kalihi neighborhood of Honolulu on the island of Oahu.

Google Maps

Many of its franchise restaurant owners are former kamaaina (Hawaiian residents) who moved to the continental United States. But whether or not they have a connection to Hawaii, all franchisees must join L&L in Hawaii to meet the team and receive training.

For a month, franchisees learn to make all the fresh and homemade recipes in order to understand the taste and quality to which they must adhere. Since the restaurant is sometimes the first time people from the mainland encounter Hawaii and its culture, it is also important that franchisees learn about the culture, history and food of the islands before opening their store.

“It’s great for me to see how much work our franchisees put into their business every day and what they do for their community and their customers,” says Elisia.

Spam musubi is the top-selling item at L&L restaurants in the continental United States

Spam musubi is the top-selling item at L&L restaurants in the continental United States

Courtesy of L&L/Karen DB Photography

Although Flores and Kam, now in their mid-60s, have stepped back to let Elisia lead, they are still an integral part of the family business.

“Eddie, my dad, is still president of the company and he still comes into the office every day,” Elisia explains, “Uncle Johnson, he runs a few L&Ls that he owns and he’s still in the kitchen every day. two guys go to work for a long time.

“It’s such a passion for me to come to work every day because of what we do,” she says, “and I feel so blessed and so lucky to be part of the company.”


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