Ask any Hawaiian about L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, a fast-food chain ubiquitous on the islands and the West Coast, and they can likely tell you about its traditional plate lunches complete with heaping scoops of macaroni salad. What they might not know is the company has more than 200 franchise locations, gross sales of $96 million, and some 2,500 employees, about half of whom were born in America. They may also not be aware that the CEO, Eddie Flores, Jr., was born in Hong Kong and credits his success to American public education.
Flores was born in Hong Kong, where the highly competitive school system often edges out children as they age. Flores, a daydreamer labeled “learning disabled,” was twice held back. “If I had to stay in Hong Kong,” he says, “I never would have finished high school.”
It’s also unlikely he would have received family financing to foster his entrepreneurial drive. Neither his Chinese mother, nor his father, from the Philippines, had received more than a sixth grade education. They struggled to support seven children.
But Flores’ mother was born in Hawaii, paving the family’s path to America. As a U.S. citizen, her minor children were eligible to apply for citizenship immediately, which Flores did upon arrival, at age 16. In the United States, Flores earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Hawaii and a master’s degree in liberal studies from the University of Oklahoma. “In the United States, they don’t eliminate you,” he says. “In America you have an equal opportunity to strive and succeed.”
In the United States, they don’t eliminate you. In America you have an equal opportunity to strive and succeed.
Flores spent two years learning the loan business at a bank before launching his own real estate firm, where he quickly amassed 12 employees and enough savings to buy his mother out of her cashier job; in 1976 he bought her the L&L Drive Inn, a little Honolulu diner, for $26,000. Thirteen years later, when Flores learned her successor had let friends use the L&L name for free, Flores read up on franchising and re-entered the business full-time. Today, the restaurants operate under the name L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.
About half of L&L’s franchise owners are immigrants, many of them former employees. Each restaurant has 10 to 15 workers. The immigrant-owned franchises almost never fail, “because immigrant families usually have everyone working,” Flores says. “Then they hire people.”
Grateful for the opportunities America gave him, Flores helped fund a $1 million university scholarship endowment, raises money for community causes, and finances loans immigrants need to buy a franchise. “If you go to the bank to borrow money and you cannot speak English and you work in a kitchen, make minimum wage, with no credit history, it’s impossible to get a loan,” he says.
Flores wishes that U.S. Immigration authorities could recognize the same financial opportunities immigrants offer. He has overseas investors who want to start an L&L franchise in the States but who can’t get a tourist visa to scout the site, even though they don’t intend to stay and would hire American workers.
“They’d be creating American jobs,” Flores says. “For people who legitimately want to invest, we should make it easier.”