Pulling open the double glass doors, walking across the gray, black, and white-tiled floor, approaching the red-accented “Order” sign at the fast food counter, I first notice the smell of fried chicken. I spend my time looking at the fast-food restaurant’s menu, seemingly debating what to order—but will inevitably opt for my childhood favorites: the fried chicken, spaghetti, and peach mango pie. Customers speak to the restaurant staff in Tagalog while families scurry to get their utensils, creating a scene that feels like I’m in Manila, Philippines. But glancing at the cars parked in the spacious parking lot from the store windows, I’m reminded that I’m halfway across the world in Alexandria, Virginia.
I was in Jollibee, a Filipino fast-food restaurant that has more than 1,500 stores spread across 17 countries, from Saudi Arabia to Spain. With 68 U.S. locations and 28 in Canada, the brand has been rapidly growing, with ambitious growth plans of reaching 500 stores in the next five to seven years in North America.
As the most popular fast-food chain in the Philippines, Jollibee is tied to many memories of Filipinos. Even I, an American-born Filipina who spent most of her life in the suburbs of North Carolina, grew up understanding people’s love for the brand. My family incorporated a stop at Jollibee when visiting family in Jacksonville, Florida. We’d often stock up with buckets of fried chicken to give to friends and family back in North Carolina—hours after it had gone cold.
I even heard that some Jollibee fans drive across states just to get a meal at the restaurant. This type of devotion always seemed a bit too over the top to me as a kid: In what world is a fast-food meal worth more than a ten-minute drive?
Over time, I embraced the draw of the restaurant. When I planned to watch Beetlejuice on Broadway with my sister last summer, we made sure to go to the Jollibee in Times Square afterward. A couple of years ago, I took one of those pilgrimages I had questioned when I was young and drove with friends to the Jollibee in Virginia Beach, Virginia, from North Carolina, forming precious memories along the way: the phone calls we all made to our families asking what they’d like us to bring them, taking pictures with the Jollibee mascot statue near the restaurant’s front doors. Visiting the restaurant was more than its food. It was an unapologetically Filipino experience I could share with friends and loved ones.
Like me, my friend Kyle Lorenzo (who has taken at least three trips from North Carolina to the Jollibee in Virginia Beach) says these hours-long journeys are less about the actual meal.
“I think it’s also emblematic of just how far and how extra Filipinos can be sometimes. Which cracks me up,” he says. “When Filipinos find something that represents them, even mildly, it’s a whole big thing and we gotta go full out on it. So I do think there’s something about the extreme lengths that some Filipinos will go—I think it says a lot about just how much pride there is in the community, but also just how over the top we can be in sort of the best kind of way.”
The makings of a beloved brand
Jollibee started in the Philippines as two Magnolia Dairy Ice Cream franchises that chemical engineering graduate Tony Tan Caktiong opened in 1975. After some input from customers, Caktiong added hot foods like burgers and hot dogs, soon making his stores so profitable that he converted them into the first Jollibee outlets in 1978. The brand created its anthropomorphic bee mascot—complete with a chef hat, large eyes, and wide smile—inspired by lovable Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Its name was a symbol of the organization’s hardworking and cooperative nature, as well as its emphasis on happiness.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing from here: In 1981, McDonald’s opened its first store in the country, directly competing with Jollibee. But rather than raise the white flag or become a franchisee, Caktiong decided to go head-to-head with the U.S. brand on its menu.
For the first-timer looking at Jollibee’s menu, there are plenty of menu items they can lean into for some sense of familiarity. There’s its original flagship product, the “Yumburger,” which comes with optional additions like pineapple rings, bacon, lettuce, and tomato. The brand also sells its own variety of fried chicken sandwiches and buckets of fried chicken known as Chickenjoy, which is similar to those of restaurants like Popeye’s and KFC but with its own set as spices.
However, several foods significantly differ from McDonald’s usual offerings. There’s the Jollibee spaghetti, which was introduced a year after the Yumburger in 1978. It may look like the usual, savory spaghetti bolognese found in American Italian digs—but upon first bite tastes sweet (it’s the banana ketchup, a beloved Filipino condiment) and instead of meatballs there are chunks of hot dogs. Order a “burger steak” and you’ll get a patty with a side of rice and gravy instead of a bun, while “palabok fiesta” serves up a rice noodle dish covered in garlic sauce, sautéed pork, shrimp, and egg.
When it comes to dessert, you’ll find the peach mango pie, which—in my humble opinion—is infinitely better than the apple pie McDonald’s serves. And on occasion, the fast-food restaurant offers halo-halo (literally translating to “mix-mix” in Tagalog), a shaved ice concoction combining ube ice cream, flan, red beans, and other ingredients in a plastic cup.
After studying the brand, the Jollibee founder realized the edge was in appealing to the Filipino’s taste for sweet and savory foods, rather than trying to create a desire for purely “American” food.
“Our [food] tends to be sweeter, more spices, more salty,” Caktiong told Forbes Asia in a 2013 story. “We were lucky as it was not easy for [McDonald’s] to change their product because of their global image.”
The willingness to cater to Filipino taste buds paid off for Jollibee. In his Forbes interview, Caktiong said this strategy, along with upping its game to surpass McDonald’s in other attributes like courtesy and service style, made Jollibee rank higher in customer surveys in different ways. Customers seemed to prefer Jollibee’s marketing, promotion, and advertising better—so they patronized the restaurant over McDonald’s: According to a 2021 study from Statista, Jollibee had the highest market share at 30 percent. McDonald’s ranks second, at only 9.4 percent. While McDonald’s opened its 700th store at the end of 2022, Jollibee had nearly 500 more spread throughout the country.
Besting McDonald’s at the fast-food game seems impossible. Especially considering the Philippines’s past as a U.S. colony—bringing with it an affinity for American brands and culture—this type of underdog story almost feels like something of mythic proportions. (In 2022, Forbes estimated Caktiong and his family to have an estimated $2.6 billion net worth, ranking among the Philippines’s richest.) The little restaurant that could seems to have become emblematic of the country in its resilience, especially for Filipinos far from home. In his 2013 interview, Caktiong said Jollibee’s strategy for growth abroad was to target large Filipino communities abroad, saying they don’t even need to advertise in these areas because “the longing for home is there.”
Jollibee CEO Ernesto Tanmantiong reiterated the same idea in a 2023 article for Time, saying the company uses the support of the Filipino market in places like the United States, where the brand is relatively unknown. When Jollibee’s first East Coast location opened in Queens, New York, on February 14, 2009, Tanmantiong remembers that despite a blizzard, long lines reached up to four blocks away from the restaurant.
New customers, old comforts
In April 2023, I took a trip to visit my sister, who now lives in Arlington, Virginia, and decided to drive 20 minutes away to the Jollibee outpost in Alexandria, Virginia (which opened in 2022). While waiting for our order, I was surprised to see a significant amount of diversity in the restaurant. The demographic seemed to have shifted from the almost exclusively Filipino crowds I remembered in my childhood to people of all different ages, races, and backgrounds as customers. I talked to some of them about their connection to the restaurant. Ellen Nguyen, a 25-year-old from the Washington metro area, said she’d first heard of the brand from friends who would take trips to the Jollibee in Virginia Beach. When the Alexandria branch opened, she decided to give it a try and got hooked.
“Especially with social media nowadays, I feel like Jollibee is kind of expanding,” Ellen tells me as she finishes her meal. “The thing to think about social media is that we get to share everything.”
Before the age of social media omnipresence, the restaurant felt like a secret to outsiders, revealed only by food explorers like Anthony Bourdain (he had called the chain “the wackiest, jolliest place on Earth”.) Now, looking up the word “Jollibee” on Youtube reveals a host of videos where people “Try Jollibee for the First Time!” Influencers stumble through pronunciations of palabok and carefully cut their burger steaks almost scientifically, trying to figure out exactly what is on their plate. Watching these videos feels oddly personal. Jollibee captures the Philippines’s unique intersection of Spanish, American, and Asian cuisine—their opinions of the food feel like a bigger opinion on Filipino culture, and by extension, of me. Scrolling through the comment section of these videos, I see strangers on the internet sharing similar sentiments. “As a Filipino-American, I feel like I’m getting praised every time Keith likes the food lol,” commented one person on the Try Guy’s “Keith Eats Everything At Jollibee” video.
The word is getting out about Filipino food beyond places with large diaspora communities like New York and California. But for those of us who had grown up with the brand, the nostalgia factor seems to fuel those long but memorable drives.
Mayenni Cayao, a 39-year-old Filipina born in Manila, told me she grew up with the brand and worked for the restaurant when she was 17. “I’ve been [in the United States] for almost 20 years. [Back then], it’s like you’re missing the food and you have to go to California or something like that.”
She and her husband Wilson had traveled from Virginia to New York for the snowy Queens restaurant opening nearly 15 years ago. Despite a more than 200-mile drive, her husband tells me that the trip was worth it. “The taste is different. The food. You [couldn’t find it in Alexandria.] Now, finally, they made it here.” Along with the couple’s five-year-old girl named Stella, Mayenni says the family’s trips to Virginia Beach “always” include a stop at Jollibee.
I get a similar sentiment from Lance Ramos, who tells me about his experiences with the fast-food brand while sipping his pineapple quencher. Born in Cavite, Philippines, the 28-year-old appreciates how the Jollibee experience—complete with the smells of fried chicken and of pineapple juice—is still the same as it is “back home.”
We talk about his experience taking road trips to New York and Virginia Beach for Jollibee, before touching on the subject of Jollibee’s increased popularity among non-Filipinos. Ramos points to the Fairfax County policeman standing behind him, waiting for his order near the counter.
“You would think it’s just a Filipino thing, but everybody gets the drive nowadays,” he tells me.
I thanked him for the chance to interview, then hurried to my sister at a nearby table. By then, our to-go order had long arrived. We wanted to get to her house while the Chickenjoy was still hot.