COVID-19 a ‘Kick in the Butt’ for L&L Hawaiian Barbecue
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue CEO Elisia Flores.
A piece of grilled Spam placed atop rice and wrapped in dried seaweed. That’s the Spam Musubi at L&L Hawaiian Barbecue and an item CEO Elisia Flores said has been surprisingly popular for delivery orders since the brand began ramping up that sales channel during the pandemic.
“I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised, it’s one of our most popular items normally,” she said. “I just wouldn’t have guessed people would order it for delivery.”
Another top five delivery item, the BBQ Mix, a hefty plate of beef, chicken and short ribs, is giving Flores and L&L valuable insight into types of food its customers want brought to them. “With the plates style, it’s a heavier meal,” said Flores, “something they can save for later.” Demand for the Spam Musubi (pictured below), meanwhile, indicates a need for more side options.
“We’re looking at what different add-ons can we put on to increase our check average, while at the same time slimming down the core menu,” she explained as the company seeks to maximize sales from its four third-party service partnerships now that 90 percent of its 205 restaurants are offering delivery, versus around 40 percent before the pandemic.
“Delivery has always been in the future for us,” Flores said. “I wouldn’t categorize us as someone who is leading edge in terms of technology adoption. COVID was a kick in the butt.”
Like many restaurant franchises pushing to adapt quickly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Honolulu-based L&L Hawaiian Barbecue is working through its share of challenges, some of which are unique to its location and concept.
“Even just finding times to talk to franchisees is a challenge,” said Flores, in reference to the four time zones in which its restaurants operate. Sixty-four units are in Hawaii, mainly on Oahu, with the rest on the U.S. mainland in 15 states (plus two in Japan).
“Communication has been on steroids,” she continued, including via email, video conference and WeChat, a Chinese messaging and social media app that helps L&L address another of its unique challenges.
“We have a lot of franchisees who are immigrants, who English isn’t their first language,” said Flores. “So we’re answering a lot of questions and helping them understand all this different information.” One of her corporate team members is fluent in Chinese, specifically the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects, and has been instrumental in translating vital information.
“That’s been hugely important with PPP,” the Paycheck Protection Program loans, “which was a major lifeline to many of our franchisees, but wow, that process need our guidance,” she said.
Those challenges aside, Flores stressed she’s been impressed with franchisees’ resilience and creativity during the past three months as 95 percent of L&L’s restaurants stayed open and profitable. “Our franchisees showed so much ingenuity,” said Flores, from quickly installing sneeze guards at order counters to launching curbside pickup. “We have a franchisee in San Antonio, her business changed from 60 percent dine-in to 95 percent curbside and takeout. She created a whole operational process, down to employees learning makes and models of cars.”
Another franchisee even attached a small wagon to a remote-controlled car to get curbside orders from the restaurant to the parking lot.
Franchisees’ ability to quickly adapt during the crisis is due in large part to the owner-operator nature of L&L’s system and the flexibility it affords owners.
“They have a lot more leeway in how they operate their stores” versus a typical franchise, said Flores. “They can come up with ideas that make the most sense for their region.”
Flores, who spent eight years in senior finance roles with General Electric before joining L&L in 2014 as its chief financial officer, was named CEO last year, succeeding her father and L&L co-founder Eddie Flores Jr. With her corporate background, she admitted the environment of fewer rules and standardized processes cultivated by her entrepreneurial dad has taken some getting used to, but noted the sense of agency it affords franchisees has been essential during this time.
Moving forward, Flores said she and her team are building a focused sales strategy to accelerate growth via franchising and are evaluating new real estate opportunities, including sites with drive-thrus. L&L’s first drive-thru location opened a few weeks ago on a military base in San Diego after the franchisee there decided to expedite the process.
“It’s such a crazy, confusing, emotional time … but my heart is full with how great our franchisees have done and how our brand has been able to navigate these challenges,” said Flores.