This podcast and article were originally published in the Feet in 2 Worlds™ Telling the Stories of Today's Immigrants website. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Podbean.
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.
Here is one of many Jollibee videos posted on YouTube.
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.
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.
Call it American culinary imperialism. For Filipino immigrants in the U.S. one of the best ways to bring back the feeling of being home is to dig into a meal of burgers, milkshakes and fried chicken.
I feel like I’m in the Philippines right now!
I’m eating the famous chicken joy, and rice, and I love gravy. Gravy is so good.
I’m John Rudolph, Executive Producer of Feet in Two Worlds, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. On this Food in 2 Worlds podcast we take you to Jersey City, New Jersey for the grand opening of a Filipino fast food restaurant called Jollibee.
Meron po kaming, three fries, three soda three pies…
Nice tagalog going into English to name the things they are serving.
Sound of crowd inside
Jollibee started in the Philippines. Today they have branches all over the world. The menu features, burgers, fries, spaghetti and fried chicken - probably not what you’d imagine as typical Filipino food. But to many Filipinos that’s exactly what it is. Jollibee has taken American fast food, given it a Filipino twist and is now importing those foods back to the US to the delight of Filipinos living here.
I lived in Cavite and now we’re here in Jersey City and we’re so excited to come here in Jollibee.
That’s Nell, a Filipina immigrant who stood in line on Jollibee’s opening day in Jersey City..
With me in the studio is Feet in 2 Worlds Reporter, Aurora Almendral who was also there.
What was it like at Jollibee that day?
It was crowded. People were standing in line outside under the hot sun, taking pictures next to the statue of Jollibee, the mascot, which is the large, yellow and red bee that’s wearing white gloves and a chef’s hat. They were piling their kids into the statue’s arms. Inside, there was a man in a giant Jollibee suit greeting customers, kids are screaming “Jollibee!” and waving stuffed toys in his image, and even adults are taking pictures with him. All the tables are full, and the line inside is even denser. People were excited.
If it’s just a burger joint, what is there to be excited about? Isn’t there plenty of fast food chicken and burgers in the U.S. already?
Jollibee is different. It’s chicken and hamburgers and spaghetti and fried peach pies, but it’s all been Philippine-ized. The roots are in American food, but its evolved into something Filipino. The hamburger patties are made with onions and probably soy sauce, or something like it. The French fries are served with banana ketchup, the milkshakes are purple yam flavored, the peach pie is actually a peach-mango pie, and the red-sauce spaghetti is sweet, with hot dogs and ham in it and melted cheddar cheese on top.
I met Elvie Canass, who was there with a couple of friends and her Filipina-American daughter. She told me she’s tried American spaghetti, but it’s not what she prefers.
Yes, yes, but I don’t like it! … I always buy, you know Filipino. I always buy Filipino spaghetti.
For Filipinos, the hamburgers and the hot dogs and the spaghetti made here in the U.S. just doesn’t taste right.
Why is Jollibee in Jersey City?
The list of Jollibee’s international locations reads like a map of the Filipino diaspora: Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Qatar, California, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Queens, New York. New Jersey’s Filipino immigrant population has grown dramatically in recent years, and so it was only natural that Jollibee made the decision to open one of its restaurants there.
The Jollibee corporation targets areas with high concentrations of Filipino immigrants, and recreates everything from the design of the restaurant to the way the staff treats the customers, because they know that nostalgia is part of what they’re selling to Filipino immigrants. I spoke with Maria Lourdes Villamayor, she’s theBusiness Head of East Coast Operations for Jollibee.
We make sure that all our ingredients are the authentic ones. We even import our spices for the chicken joy, which we supply our tall processor here. Even 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 Philippines has its own cuisine. How did American fast food become so popular with Filipinos?
It’s an influence that goes back more than a hundred years. The Philippines was America’s only official colony–the U.S. bought the country from Spain, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, at the end of the Spanish-American war.
During this colonial period from 1898 to 1946, the U.S. had their hands in all sorts of things in the Philippines. There was of course a lot of resistance to this, as Filipinos had already fought a battle of independence from Spain a couple of years before, only to be handed over to the Americans.
American food, and an American way of eating, was one of the many things the United States wanted to bestow upon their colony.
To get an idea of how the Americans influenced Filipino food culture, I talked to Amy Besa, owns Purple Yam here in New York. She’s originally from the Philippines, and has researched the American influence on Filipino food for her book, Memories of Philippine Kitchens. She explained to me how this played out in the food culture of the Philippines.
…when I was growing up that was one of the things that America did to us. They made us feel that our food was inferior.
And they did that systematically. Through the education system, through the media, through cookbooks and all that.
Besa says Filipino children were taught how to bake muffins in school, Filipino food magazines from the 1930s are filled with American recipes, and Filipinos were told that the native diet of rice and fish was nutritionally deficient.
Things like evaporated and condensed milk, margarine, canned fruits and canned meats like Spam, deviled ham spreads and Vienna sausages came into the market. These industrial American foods were billed as superior to more traditional Filipino foods like dried fish, coconut milk and fresh tropical fruits.
When did Jollibee come into the picture?
Jollibee was started by a man named Tony Tan as an ice cream parlor in 1975. It was definitely building off of this American food culture in the Philippines, Filipinos were already primed to eat mass produced fast foods. When McDonalds arrived in 1981, Jollibee was still a small chain that had just switched to frying up burgers and hot dogs.
Within four years, Jollibee had become the market leader in fast food. They’d beaten McDonald’s at its own game. This was at least in part because Tony Tan sold the American food that Filipinos had been adapting to their palate for decades.
So for some Filipinos does Jollibee represents what we talked about at the top, American culinary imperialism?
Yes, but it’s more complicated than that.
Because Jollibee is a Filipino business that outsold McDonalds, which was already a symbol of American global dominance, Filipinos take pride in it. They see Jollibee as the Filipino underdog. Business newspapers called Jollibee’s success an embarrassment to McDonalds. It’s a David and Goliath story.
Filipinos see Jollibee as a sign that they can take this experience of culinary imperialism, which was a little oppressive, and make it Filipino.
Amy Besa, who doesn’t really like Jollibee fast food, will still acknowledge that it symbolizes for Filipinos and Filipino immigrants:
So I think that it the appeal of when Jollibee comes over here, it is not the food really that they’re offering, it’s a piece of home.
And a piece of pride.
What about traditional Filipino food, has it also been influenced by American culture?
One way that has changed is that even traditional Filipino dishes are now made with industrially manufactured ingredients. There’s a lot of packaged tamarind-flavored soup bases and bottles of liver sauce being sold in grocery stores that make it easier to replicate traditional labor-intensive Filipino dishes.
There’s an entire restaurant chain based around eating traditional Filipino food with your hands, in the traditional Filipino way, but every branch is identical and every dish is consistent, wherever you are in the country. It’s an American business model.
In her restaurant, Amy Besa uses fresh ingredients and she’s trying to revive knowledge about traditional techniques. She says that Filipinos are very good at adapting foreign foods
That is one thing that is a concern among people. That the influx of foreign food and fast food and processed food will kill Filipino food. I really believe that Filipinos will not allow that.
Because, we are capable of embracing all this craziness from abroad, from outside and transforming them into some crazy Filipino food. But then we are also very good at preserving our own.
She notes that to this day, Filipinos are still eating the suman and tuba, which is sticky rice cooked in banana leaves and a drink of fermented coconut sap, that was served to Ferdinand Magellan when he arrived on the islands.
These are foods that are still around even after 300 years of Spanish colonization, and Besa takes it as a sign that traditional foods can exist alongside the Jell-O molds and canned fruit salad in Nestle table cream that Filipinos picked up from the Americans not to mention fast food from Jolibee
But it sounds like when Filipino immigrants have an urge for a familiar taste they are just as likely to order fried chicken at a Jollibee as they are to make a home cooked meal of traditional Filipino dishes. So does Jollibee represent the future of Filipino cuisine?
Not at all. Filipino immigrants still cook and eat traditional Filipino foods. But to get that taste that’s associated with Jollibee, you have to go to Jollibee.
I think Jollibee is something that Filipinos line up for because most everything else they can make themselves.
AURORA, THANKS SO MUCH FOR BRINGING THIS STORY TO THE FOOD IN 2 WORLDS PODCAST.
AURORA ALMENDRAL IS A FREELANCE JOURNALIST IN NYC AND A FEET IN 2 WORLDS FOOD REPORTING FELLOW.
Our producer is Jocelyn Gonzales. The engineer is Chad Bernhard at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Justin Mitchell is the Feet in 2 Worlds intern.
FOR MORE STORIES BY AND ABOUT IMMIGRANTS VISIT OUR NEW WEBSITE, F - I- 2- W DOT ORG.
I'M JOHN RUDOLPH. THANKS FOR LISTENING.
Aurora Almendral is a Philippine-born freelance writer based in New York City. As a Fulbright Scholar to Morocco and Spain, she researched and filmed a documentary on entrepreneurship and illegal immigration in Madrid. She previously worked as a research assistant at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and has written for Filipinas Magazine and New America Media.