The line of customers, almost all of them Filipino immigrants, snaked out the door at the Jollibee fast food restaurant in Jersey City, New Jersey. It was opening day, and everyone was there for a taste of home.
Jollibee is a Filipino fast food chain that’s so beloved by Filipino immigrants that its list of overseas locations reads like a map of the Filipino diaspora. There are Jollibees in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Dubai, where large numbers of Filipinos work as drivers, nurses, hotel staff and engineers. In Hong Kong Jollibee serves up its burgers and fries for homesick domestic workers picnicking in the parks on Sundays.
Jollibee has twenty-seven branches in the U.S., most in California which has a large Filipino population. The Jersey City location is a reflection of the recent growth in New Jersey’s Filipino community. Roughly 30,000 Filipinos live in New Jersey, though for the Santos family, the allure of Chickenjoy and Yumburgers was worth the three-hour drive from their home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Randy Santos, who stood in line with his wife and two teenage sons, hasn’t been back to the Philippines in a while, and he says going to Jollibee, “is the cheapest way to…feel like I’m in the Philippines right now.”
Santos was drinking in the atmosphere. Crowds of families were chatting in Tagalog, and children were jumping up and down in excitement, waiting to take a picture with Jollibee, the restaurant’s dancing bumble bee mascot.
The Jollibee corporation knows that in the United States — where there are already plenty of restaurants serving fast food burgers and fried chicken — they’re not just selling food, they’re also selling nostalgia.
Maria Lourdes Villamayor, the head of East Coast operations for Jollibee explains that they recreate each branch with the same plastic booths and murals that they use in their Philippine locations. As for the food, even the most American of foods has a Filipino version that is imported to America from the Philippines.
“We make sure that all our ingredients are authentic,” Villamayor said. ”We even import our spices for the Chickenjoy. The breading and the gravy are all imported from the Philippines. So it’s exactly the same gravy, the same breading that we use in Manila. The pies are all made by the same commissary in the Philippines. We bring them here.”
Jollibee’s fast food does have a Filipino twist. The milkshakes are flavored with ube, a native sweet purple yam. The fries are served with a ketchup made from bananas, but dyed red to look like tomato ketchup. That bucket of fried chicken? You can get it with either a side of mashed potatoes and gravy or a ball of steamed rice wrapped in paper. The spaghetti is addictive, with the noodles cooked way past al dente, and topped with a sweet red sauce, sliced hot dogs and melted cheddar cheese.
Amy Besa, author of Memories of Philippine Kitchens and co-owner of Purple Yam restaurant in Brooklyn, explained that American food runs deep in Filipino culture.
The Philippines was America’s only colony, which the U.S. bought from Spain along with Guam and Puerto Rico. During the near half-century of American rule, the United States had its hands in the government and military, certainly, but also the food. Filipinos were told that their traditional diet of fish and rice was nutritionally deficient, and they set about filling this perceived dietary shortfall with American industrial foods.
Besa says that when she was growing up, “that was one of the things America did to us, they made us feel that our food was inferior.”
Filipino school children were taught how to bake layer cakes and muffins, and magazines gave recipes for Jell-O molds and bowls of party punch made with orange sherbet and 7-Up. Canned milk and canned meats hit the market, their popularity buoyed by their American roots. Generations of Filipinos learned to pine for a land they had never seen, but could only dream about while opening a can of cherries from Michigan.
On the heels of decades of American food reverence, Jollibee opened in 1975 as an ice cream parlor — a tropical interpretation of a small town America institution. When the first McDonalds opened in the Philippines in 1981, Jollibee had just switched to frying up hamburgers and hot dogs.
Rather than capitulate to this symbol of American global dominance, Tony Tan Caktiong, the owner of Jollibee, decided to expand. Within four years, Jollibee was outselling McDonalds in what The Economist called “a huge embarrassment.” The Filipino underdog had beaten McDonalds at its own game.
Besa, who takes issue with Jollibee carrying on the American legacy of unhealthy, industrially-produced food, is still happy to give the company credit for what it does. “It’s not the food really that they’re offering, it’s a piece of home. And a piece of pride,” she says.
Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, WNYC and the Sirus Fund.