Sages Over Seventy: Eddie Flores
The founder of the L&L family of restaurants still goes to work most days but is now also working on rejuvenating Honolulu’s Chinatown
Fifth in a series of profiles of Hawai‘i’s “Sages Over 70”
At 7:30 on weekday mornings, Eddie Flores and his dog Lucky head into the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue offices, even though his daughter, Elisia, is CEO and has been running 80% of the operation for two years.
As Lucky runs around, Flores makes phone calls, sets up a lunch date with buddies, then heads home for a nap before afternoon work on his latest project: helping to rejuvenate Chinatown.
Though he’s 74, and still working to expand the L&L empire that includes either 212 or 218 franchise restaurants (he and his daughter disagree on the exact number) in 14 states, Flores has loosened his grip on the business and moved on to the Chinatown project.
“I’m kind of excited,” he says. “I want to make it cleaner, better, safer, like the mayor wants to do.”
He is also raising money to build a Chinatown gateway at Kekaulike and King streets (near where the rail station is planned) – an arch like other Chinatowns have marking their entrances.
“You know how long it takes to get a permit?” Flores asks. “It will be approximately another year and a half to get all the permits.”
Flores recognizes Chinatown’s rejuvenation also needs economic stimulus, assistance for the merchants and a major makeover.
Chinatown is close to his heart partly because he has always supported immigrant Chinese families and because it’s near where he lived when his family arrived in Hawai‘i from Hong Kong in 1963.
“I was brought up on Liliha Street three blocks away. Then we moved to Kukui Gardens.”
He still likes to wander Chinatown, greeting friends and strangers and shopping at the open markets.
Flores is also pondering helping to create an exhibit honoring prominent people of Chinese ancestry.
“It will help people understand a little more about the Chinese contributions to Hawai‘i. Not too many people know what the Chinese have done in Hawai‘i.”
Nor do they know how much Flores has done to mentor young people such as Tony Wong Cam, who has known “Uncle Eddie” since he was a boy.
When Wong Cam entered UH’s Shidler College of Business, Flores introduced him to the dean and other business associates, and ensured the student networked.
“The biggest thing he taught me was in Hawai‘i it’s all about relationships. I would see him at networking events and he would take me around and introduce me to business partners and friends, and they have helped mentor me too, and I try to pass that on to younger people I work with.”
Wong Cam financed his own L&L franchise in Waimānalo two years ago and thanks Flores for helping him understand how a business works.
“Eddie provided a lot of help and guidance and how to manage finances and hire the right people.” Flores also advised him to learn to golf because it affords a young businessman a few hours on a golf course “to really get to know someone.”
Flores, who is part Chinese and part Filipino, is also involved with the Filipino Community Center in Waipahu, most recently working with Kaiser Permanente to offer a site for COVID-19 vaccinations.
“I told Kaiser I’ll give away a free plate-lunch if they come in for a shot,” he says.
He began working decades ago with Roland Casamina to create the center, which has become an important gathering place.
“It’s the pride and joy of the Filipino community,” says Flores. “I studied the Okinawan and the Japanese centers when they were first built and said (we have to) make half of the facility commercial rental and that pays for maintenance. If you don’t have income it’s going to go belly-up.”
Casamina remembers teaming with Flores on the community center and an annual Filipino festival.
“Eddie is a whirlwind,” says Casamina. “I learned a lot from him. He’s nine years my senior and a lot more experienced in business. I was already successful in my own company, House of Finance, but working together it was like a perfect fit. Everything we did took off like a rocket.”
Flores and Casamina each put in $50,000 to start funding and inspired banks, other companies and nonprofits and government to help support the center, which was completed in 2002.
The biggest donor was the Weinberg Foundation, remembers Casamina.
“We had requested $1.5 million and one day I got a call, ‘Can you guys come for an urgent meeting?’ … We thought they would reduce our request, but instead of reducing it they said, ‘We will give you $3 million.’ We were kicking each other under the table, we were so excited. Since then we have been best of friends.”