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A Taiwanese question about Jollibee in the US

Late last year, a friend from our Taipei office emailed me a question about Jollibee. He was working on his MBA and for some reason, he was working on a case study that involved this Filipino food chain. He asked about its popularity on the US west coast, if their target market was more Filipino that American, and whether or not the chain made changes to adapt to the local market.

His questions were interesting for a number of reasons. First, I’m still getting over Jollibee-deprivation. It’s easy to take Jollibee for granted when your in the Philippines, where practically every mall has one. But spend three and a half years in Taiwan, where it doesn’t exist despite the legions of OFWs on the island, and you learn to appreciate it really fast. I’d already been in the US 5 years by then, and I visit a Jollibee at least once a month . . . but I’m still getting over the prolonged separation from the crispy greaseless chicken and palabok.

Second, was the timing of the email. As I started writing my reply, I realized that it had been a while since I wrote just for fun. After weeks of poring over debug logs and flowcharts, it was time for a break.

That email, and the resulting response, planted the seeds for this blog.

My response is shown below (tweeked slightly to eliminate typos and improve the flow). Happy reading.

Here in Northern California, Jollibee is definitely popular. In the past two years alone, they opened two new branches. One in the largest mall in the region, the “Great Mall of the Bay Area” in Milpitas, and another in San Francisco. I have not been to a Jollibee in Southern California, but given that the concentration of Filipinos there is actually greater than up here, I would imagine that it is a big hit there as well.

It has the exact same look, feel, and offerings as a regular Jollibee that you would find anywhere in the Philippines – perhaps with the exception of the following:

• Accepts credit cards for payment (I called this an American adaptation in the original email. Only to find that this had become true in the Philippines as well, thanks to Banco De Oro and their card machines)
• Self-service for drinks (another common practice in American fast food chains)
• Clean-as-you-go for the tables instead of having a server clean up tables for you

It is definitely targeted at Filipinos, and arguably capitalizes on the fact that food is a well established cure for homesickness (heck, my wife ended up learning to cook while we were in Taiwan because of it). Close your eyes and the sounds and smells in a Jollibee restaurant will transport you back to the Philippines.

Unlike other minority-inspired chains like Baja Fresh, El Polo Loco (Mexican), and Panda Express (Chinese), which deliberately cater to what Westerners think are Mexican and Chinese food, Jollibee remained true to the food that generations of my countrymen grew up with and have come to love. The menu remains unchanged, and has not been adjusted to suit the local palette. There is, however, a caveat to that fidelity to the chain’s Filipino roots.

One important Filipino quality that Jollibee captures is the Filipino’s underlying aspiration to be anything else other than Filipino. Its default look and feel in the Philippines has always been Western. The founders of Jollibee reportedly sought to emulate McDonald’s in their restaurants. When the first Jollibee opened in my hometown in the late 80s, the line to the restaurant went around a reasonably sized city block. People lined up for almost an hour just to experience my hometown’s first western-inspired fastfood restaurant: organized, hygienic, very well lit, and colorful.

Most of us think of Jollibee as McDonalds with better tasting food. We like strong flavors. Jollibee delivers; McDonald’s doesn’t in most of our minds. But we appreciated that it had a McDonald’s-like ambiance.

Although Jollibee is a Filipino icon, it’s really a restaurant that pre-embraced a Western — particularly American — way of doing things. So it’s a chain that really doesn’t need to adapt to America, because it was already designed to bring America to the common Filipino from the start.

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