Four decades ago, Tony Tan Caktiong just wanted to switch degrees and sell ice cream. Instead, he laid the groundwork for one of the food world's most dedicated, voracious cults. Across North America, Asia, and Europe -- from Los Angeles to Qatar, Milan to Macau -- its legion of followers line up for a heaping buckets of chicken, signature Yumburgers, rice-and-beef breakfast platters, shrimp-packed noodles, and hot dog-stuffed sweet spaghetti.
They are led -- at the behest of a smiling, dancing bee in a tuxedo jacket -- to the promise of joy. Chicken Joy.
But so it was in 1978 that Caktiong opened the institution that is Jollibee in the bustling former capital of the Philippines, Quezon City, forever changing his country's fast-food landscape and capturing the hearts and tastebuds of generations. And it happened seemingly by chance. A Filipino citizen born to Chinese immigrants with a degree in chemical engineering, Tan Caktiong entered the food world by opening a Magnolia ice cream parlor in 1975, a franchised Filipino spot owned by the San Miguel conglomerate. He decided to defer from the original menu and also offer hot sandwiches and snacks for hungry patrons looking to consume something other than sweets. When the food began outselling the ice cream, Tan had an idea: to create a fast-food spot that solely appealed to the Filipino palette. It was then that Jollibee was born.
Jollibee took off, and Caktiong didn’t look back. In fact, he looked global. The chain began popping up all over the Philippines, attracting more and more customers with its no-nonsense, Filipino-centric menu. It competed with large American chains and combatted McDonald’s entry into the Filipino market in the early ‘80s. It opened its first overseas location in 1986, and its first US location in 1998. At its core, its success lies in the fact that it was -- and continues to be -- unabashedly Filipino, with hot dogs galore in the banana-ketchup spaghetti and garlic rice paired with every breakfast meal.
Today, Jollibee has over 1,000 locations worldwide, with dozens sprinkled across the US and plans to expand into triple digits in the next 5 years. The first Manhattan-based location opened last fall to much fanfare, including two mega fans who lined up 20 hours in advance to be the first to get their fix of Filipino fried chicken in the Big Apple. Selfies are shamelessly snapped with the bee mascot, who is -- quite literally -- a jolly bee. Fans can be found everywhere, hungering for gigantic buckets of KFC-rivaling bird called Chicken Joys, one of the chain’s most iconic menu items, and platters of sweet spaghetti. The cult of Jollibee isn't isolated -- it's everywhere.