Last October, Jollibee opened their 37th store in America. It was their second in New York State, but their debut in Manhattan. The first person arrived and started to queue 20 hours before its 8am opening. Despite the cold and persistent rain, a steady stream of people joined the queue throughout the night and into early morning. Granted, to celebrate the brand’s 40th anniversary they were giving the first 40 customers in line free Chickenjoy for a year, but that queue had extended way beyond 40 people and even without diet-busting incentives, people were going crazy for Jollibee.
Their first UK store also opened in the same month. It was only the second European launch – following Milan earlier in the year – and queues began 18 hours before opening. By the time the doors finally opened in the morning there were over 1,000 people patiently lined up around the block for Chickenjoy, peach mango pie, halo-halo and the other Filipino-influenced items on the eclectic fast food menu. People haven’t been so excited about something from the Philippines since Manny Pacquiao was in his prime.
The growth of Jollibee has been one of the biggest global food trends of the last 18 months. A total of 317 stores were opened in the Philippines in 2018, while 180 new outlets were unveiled abroad. It’s now the 24th largest fast food chain globally – including coffee chains – by number of branches, and fifth among companies not from the United States.
The profit of Jollibee Foods Corporation rose by 17.1% to $158m in 2018, as they opened those 502 new stores – the most it has opened in a single year. There are already plans to open another 150 stores in the United States alone within the next five years.
The UAE already has 14 branches, with 44 across the GCC, and they tell The National that they will be opening five more before the end of this year, including two in the UAE – in Sahara Centre, Sharjah and Hamdan Street, Abu Dhabi.
“The UAE is a key expansion market for the brand, ever since we launched our first outlet in Dubai Mall in 2015,” says Hisham Al Gurg, CEO, Jollibee UAE. “The launch of the new restaurants is driven by strong demand and we have seen an increase in traffic to all our outlets, and the popularity is increasing amongst different nationalities, especially for our best-selling product Spicy Chickenjoy.”
Originally founded by Tony Tan Caktiong in 1975, Jollibee had actually begun as an ice cream parlour and did not leave its home country until the first international store was opened in Taiwan in 1986.
The third of seven siblings, Caktiong was from a Chinese family who had immigrated to the Philippines in search of work. Aged just 22, he raised P350,000 (around $6,600/AED24,200 at today’s rate) via his family’s savings to invest in an ice cream parlour franchise, opening two outlets – Cubao Ice Cream House and Quiapo Ice Cream House. Acquiescing to customer requests, hot food and sandwiches were added and as those sales took off it became a fast food restaurant that targeted the specific local tastes.
From various types of hot dogs in banana-ketchup spaghetti to garlic rice served as part of breakfast meals, the menu was proudly Filipino, and leaning on the preferred sweeter flavours. The “Langhap Sarap” tagline for the brand (meaning “deliciousness inhaled”), was created as a nod to the sweet smell of the dishes. Even the arrival of McDonalds in 1981, with Westernised fast food staples, did little to dent that domestic growth.
Now the West is waking up to the cuisine, and Filipino food in general is having something of a moment. In Los Angeles one of the hottest restaurants right now, receiving broad acclaim and awards, is the brilliantly-named Ma’am Sir, and it seems that the Philippines is the next stop on the West’s culinary tour of Asian cuisines, but it’s their fast food that the public is clamouring after with a growing number of devotees.
It’s not the first fast food place to have garnered a cult following of course, and neither is such fervour a Western phenomena. When Five Guys launched in Dubai Mall, for the first two weeks it was probably the busiest restaurant in the country, and if anyone ever gets the franchise for In-N-Out-Burger in the UAE then we’ll almost certainly see the same kind of crowds, as it becomes the proverbial license to print money. Some places are just loved. But burgers are one thing, while the menu at Jollibee appeared for years to be a harder sell to consumers outside of the expat Filipino market, but decades on from its inception it is now one of the biggest global hits in fast food.
Perhaps it’s the inevitable desire for something new and different that drives food trends, the evolution of global dining and visual appeal via social media, or maybe the word is just finally waking up to the strange joys of fast food with Filipino influence. The late Anthony Bourdain, chef, author, and host of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown visited a branch of Jollibee in Los Angeles for his series. He tried their halo-halo, which is a strange mix of mung, garbanzo, and white beans, Jell-O, chick peas, coconut, shaved ice, and flan. His verdict: “It makes no Goddamn sense at all… but I love it.”
So what is Spicy Chickenjoy?
Just as McDonalds has the Big Mac, so Jollibee’s iconic menu item is Chickenjoy – a piece of fried chicken that’s crispy and spicy on the outside, it comes with a side of spaghetti, all covered in tomato sauce and topped with slices of hotdog and ground beef. It sounds like a recipe that a child would come up with, but perhaps that’s the point – a flavour-bomb combination of cheap comfort foods. Chickenjoy is their best selling product in every country in which they have a presence.
For The National – click here for original