By Dani Douglass
Eva Kam, BBA ‘99, spent her childhood watching her father, Kwock Yum “Johnson” Kam open and grow the first L&L Hawaiian Drive-Inn on Liliha Street in 1976 with “Aunty Margaret,” the mother of his future business partner, Eddie Flores, Jr., BBA ‘70. She recalls that her father recruited friends, family, employees and customers to help grow the business and expand to seven locations over 10 years. On a 1991 family trip with Flores, the idea of franchising the company came up and the partners began. In the 1990s, Johnson Kam started to recruit employees to work in locations on the neighbor islands and in 1999, the first mainland location was opened as L&L Hawaiian Barbecue in Cerritos, California.
After a positive response on the mainland, Johnson Kam quickly expanded throughout California, Las Vegas, Arizona and Washington. He recruited his daughter to continue the company’s mainland expansion in 2001. Eva Kam says that she never pictured herself working in the business she was around as a child and that she had started a fashion business after she graduated from Shidler College. After 9/11, she found her wholesale clients stopped ordering, tourism slowed and she was stuck in a retail lease. Flores helped her hire agood mediation attorney to get out of the lease and she needed to recoup her losses.
And so she agreed to her dad’s proposition and learned everything she could about operations in a short time. She recalls that she was fortunate to have a good team, including a good friend of her father’s, Stanley Won, who had helped with the recipes in the company’s early days.
Eva Kam spent the early 2000s expanding the company and worked 12-hour days, seven days a week when opening a new location, which would generate long lines of excited customers to try Hawaii favorites. In 2001, Southern California locations were opened and she got an entrepreneur bug and started investing in her own locations. The first was in Carson, California in 2001, followed by Las Vegas in 2002, Washington in 2003 and Northern California in 2004.
Eva Kam returned to Hawaii for a couple of years to work in the corporate office assisting new franchisees, but quickly realized she was an entrepreneur at heart and returned to the mainland in 2006 to continue the company’s expansion with her dad.
During 2006-2007, there was rapid expansion and a new location was opening every month. At one point, she even opened Eva’s Hawaiian Cafe in San Francisco. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, the family found themselves stuck with many leases over the next five years.
Despite having to close or sell locations that were too far or did not have a strong customer base, sales began to pick up again in 2010 and expansion started once again. The COVID pandemic has been beneficial for the company and sales have increased in Washington and Northern California locations.
Despite rocky roads, perserverance has paid off for Eva Kam and she has learned many valuable lessons from her father. “My dad has always been an inspiration for me and always taught me that hard work pays off,” she said. “He is always positive and is not afraid of risks. He takes the time to invest in the people around him. The main thing is to learn from mistakes.”