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Chinoy makes waves in Hawaii

Drummer’s son finds rhythm, ohana in US state
By: - Business Features Editor / @tinaarceodumlao
/ 05:30 AM April 08, 2018

Eddie UH Alumni award Gov. Ben Cayetano

Initially, Eddie Flores Jr. marched to the steady beat of his father’s drum.

But it did not take long for Flores to find his own rhythm and put himself on a path that would lead him to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Hawaii and also one of the most respected figures in the state’s ever-expanding Filipino community.

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And as all drummers know, timing is everything.

Flores was born in Hong Kong to a Filipino father, who was a professional musician, and a Chinese mother. They made a home there because his father was a musician and found good work in the former British colony as a drummer, playing in popular hotels with fellow Filipino artists.

But life was not easy, such that eventually, his maternal grandparents, who were initially opposed to their daughter’s marriage to his father, offered a chance of a more comfortable life in Hawaii, where the family was based.

L & L’s mixed plate of some of Hawaii’s favorite dishes

And so off on a boat they went, but life was not much better with his father unable to find work as a musician as there were too many of them in the small island.

Thus the son helped out, guided as he says by his burning desire to “make money.”

As soon as he settled into his new home at 16 years old, he earned his first dollars delivering newspapers. At the same time, he went about his studies as demanded by his mother who preached the value of getting a good education.

Anything less than hard work earned them a painful pinch to the ears.

Going to school, however, was not easy for Flores, who had to master a new language and found school “extremely challenging.”

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Partners Eddie Flores Jr. (above) and Johnson Kam built L & L Hawaiian Barbecue into a powerhouse chain.

According to Flores’ book “$266 Million Winning Lottery Recipes,” he repeated first grade twice, as well as third grade and eighth grade. His first grade report card had said that he spent the entire day “dreaming.”

In his new home, he went through a series of odd jobs such as selling tin cans and even promoting movies during the weekends.

There was no job too lowly nor difficult for Flores, who had the dogged determination to have a better life for himself.

“We were very poor and I did not want to be poor,” says Flores.

The first L&L

Between what he earned for himself, his parents’ support and his own hard work, he graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in business administration and that opened the doors for him to work in a bank, where he stayed for two years. At the same time he was already studying to be a real estate broker because he figured that there was an opportunity there to earn on the side.

He stayed with the bank for just two years but he said those eventful years provided him with the valuable experience as well as some contacts that would guide him in his first business, which was selling real estate through Sun Pacific Realty.

“I worked there for only two years but it taught me a lot of things, like finance and following a corporate culture. I also learned how to deal with different kinds of people and how to strike a deal,” says Flores, who also pursued higher studies, earning a Masters degree from the University of Oklahoma.

Those skills he finely honed over the two years served him in good stead when he finally decided to strike out on his own and take real estate brokerage full time, concentrating on Hawaii’s substantial immigrant population—Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos—that was overlooked by larger real estate companies.

Hawaii’s comfort food

With an initial complement of 12 agents, he went practically door to door, looking for liquor stores, restaurants, bars and other small business that the immigrants can invest in, take over or sell.

“We solicited listings of small businesses. We were among the few people doing it. And besides, the immigrants were perhaps more comfortable talking to me,” says Flores.

One of the businesses that he listed was the L & L Drive-Inn, which was originally L & L Dairy set up in the 1950s before it was bought and sold a number of times until it became the drive-in on Liliha Street just two blocks away from where Flores lived.

Flores often stopped there when he was a student at the University of Hawaii to enjoy a beef curry plate lunch, thus he eagerly listed it for sale when it became available in 1976 for $22,000. But just two months later, he decided to buy the restaurant himself and give it as a gift to his parents, Eduardo and Margaret Flores.

Flores at Eastlake

He thought it was an ideal gift for his mother, whom he wanted to finally take it easy after helping make ends meet as a dishwasher.

“It was a small place that was making money. My mother ran it for three years. When it became too much work for her, I sold all of my interest in the restaurant to a friend,” says Flores.

But that was not the end of his relationship with the lean but mean restaurant. His friend Johnson Kam, who partnered with him so that his mother did not have to work in the evenings, had run it well and wanted to aggressively expand, but did not know how. Flores offered to help him out. And so he got back his interest in the company, formed a joint venture company in 1991 with his friend and together they made their dream of expansion into reality.

Via the franchising route, the restaurant chain, renamed L & L Hawaiian Barbecue, grew rapidly from just five locations to 61 in Hawaii, 123 in the mainland and two abroad.

Flores with his wife, Elaine, and UH chancellor

The reason? The food that is quintessentially Hawaiian such as fried ahi, squid luau, kalua pork and the flagship Hawaiian barbecue chicken.

“The local people are very loyal to L &L and proud of us. In some cases, people actually drive four to five hours just to eat there. We go where the Hawaiians are,” he says.

The 71-year-old Flores says he tried opening up in his father’s homeland but it did not succeed, neither did it do as well as expected in China.

“Opening in foreign countries has been a big failure. I still could not figure out the right formula. For now we work best in the United States,” shares Flores.

Flores has thus decided to invest mainly in the United States, particularly Hawaii, so that he can “touch and smell” the business every day.

“If you don’t see it, you have no control,” says Flores.

And he continues to be on the expansion path despite the setbacks abroad and the grounding to a halt of the company’s ventures outside of the United States. For him, failures are just as much a part of success and par for the course for any entrepreneur.

Lifelong partners Johnson Kam and Flores

Despite the inevitable valleys and troughs that an entrepreneur will have to go through, Flores encourages people, especially Filipinos, to work for themselves, not for others.

“I have been lecturing many times to Filipinos who want their kids to be a lawyer, a nurse or a doctor. I advise them to consider going to business,” says Flores, who teaches real estate, investment, management, travel and business appraisal courses throughout Hawaii.

And one thing the Educator of the Year learned from running a business is that it pays well to forge strong ties with the community. Like how L & L has endeared itself to the Hawaiian community, making its food as part of the culture as the hula, he has also forged strong ties with the Filipino community.

In fact, Flores, who established the Filipino Fiesta and Parade in Hawaii, is one of two main forces that raised $14.2 million to set up the Filipino Community Center, considered the biggest Filipino center outside of the Philippines.

“One of the biggest lessons I have learned in business is that you have to work very closely with the community. Take care of your community the same way you take care of your family. It helps,” says Flores.

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TAGS: Drummer, Eddie Flores Jr., Entrepreneurs, Hawaii
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