When Elisia Flores was growing up, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue was like an older sister to her. It was founded by her father, Eddie Flores Jr., and his partner Johnson Kam over 40 years ago in Hawaii, and Flores didn’t think she would eventually be running the company.
Flores Jr. and Kam were both immigrants from China who started in the U.S. with nothing, and the business has always been about family. In fact, the first store began because Flores Jr. bought it for his mother.
“One thing in Hawaii is the sense of ohana, or family, and every franchisee we have, we consider them family,” said Flores.
This idea of family is very close to Flores’ heart. So much so that it drew her back to the brand after working in finance for years.
She began with the company as its chief financial officer in 2014 due to her finance background, and in 2019 took on her father’s role.
“It’s been a really tremendous full circle feeling again for many years. As a kid it was always going to be my destiny… coming into the role certainly feels like this was where I was always meant to be,” she said.
Flores took on the role of CEO of this 228-unit brand when she was in her early 30s, and she’s aware of both her age and her ethnicity as an Asian-American.
“I’ve never really felt comfortable when I’m the minority person in the room,” she said.
But over the years, Flores gained confidence in both her role and her identity. In a restaurant industry filled with white men, Flores was often one of only a few women in the room and usually the only Asian-American.
Her advice for those seeking to gain confidence and to deal with imposter syndrome is that no matter how short or long their experience is, they should believe in it and what they have because “there’s always something you can bring to the table.”
And Flores, left, has every right to be proud. Without any formal restaurant experience before becoming CFO at L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, in her four years as CEO she’s grown the store count from 160 to 228 units in 17 states.
When the brand first opened in the contiguous U.S. in California in 1999, the job of Flores Jr. and Johnson was to introduce the country to Hawaiian barbecue. Now, Flores thinks consumers know, and it’s her job to spread the message of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.
“We’re just two scoops of rice, macaroni salad, and a teriyaki-based protein, versus the consumer tastes on the mainland is more used to hamburgers, sandwiches, and pizza,” she said.
Flores also introduced a new decentralized franchising strategy when she came on board to help the brand grow. As many of the former units were family-owned, Flores wanted to respect them and offered each franchisee a way out if they didn’t want to be a part of the restructuring.
“It was the biggest challenge because I was kind of changing the course of the organization,” she said.
Every franchisee stayed on.
“The store has become [franchisees’] American dream come true,” she continued.
So what’s next for this growing franchise? 500 units — a goal Flores hopes to achieve in the next few years.