Feb 122013

By Ana Maria Villanueva-Lykes

In the US a child’s first words are usually “dada”, “momma”, and “dog”. In the Philippines, it’s “papa”, “mama” and “bee”. And it’s not just any kind of bee. It’s a special yellow and orange bee with a chef’s hat and jacket. No pants.

Every toddler in the Philippines knows the sweet taste of the hotdog bits in the spaghetti just as well as Lolo is familiar with the delightful sensation of the Chicken Joy crispy skin on the tongue. Their wide eyes — both Lolo’s and apo’s — shine at the first bite. It is because of these toddlers and their lolos — and every member of the family for that matter — that Jollibee is no longer just a fast food chain but an icon.

A mere burger chain has somehow managed to colonize “the youth culture and mass consumption”, as Andréa Picard would put it in her Cinema Scope feature. What is it about Jollibee that makes international film critiques call it a phenomenon and even The New York Times describe it as “strangely addicting”? Jollibee’s success has gone beyond Philippine taste in spite of the fact that others might define its fare as substandard, a taste for the masses. It has conquered the international palate, earning Jollibee the right to call itself the “Filipino Triumph”.

Jollibee’s story is not just the tale of Tony Tan Caktiong but the story of the Filipino’s triumph over the red-haired clown and what others might consider great taste. An inspiration for small businesses, Caktiong grew his empire from two humble Magnolia Ice Cream franchises. But people were hungry and Caktiong quenched the demand with hamburger and chicken. No longer just an ice cream parlor, the business needed a new name, one that signifies productivity and abundance. What better image to represent that than the hardworking bee? But even from the start, Caktiong knew that he wanted to serve more than just food, he wanted to serve happiness, not just for the belly, but for every child within. He wanted a place where “bida ang saya”. And so the jolly bee was born.

The bee’s colony grew so huge, spreading happiness all over the country (more than 750 stores) and abroad (USA (26), Vietnam (32), Brunei (11), Jeddah (7), Qatar, Hong Kong (1), and Kuwait (1)). Today, Jollibee claims a market share that totals to more than half of the entire industry.

But perhaps, more triumphant than the franchise’s story is the Pinoy’s bond with Jollibee, Champ, the Chicken Joy, and of course the sweet spaghetti.

The New York Times calls Jollibee the “fast food for the Filipino soul”. Every single character and item on the menu taps at the heart of the Pinoy and understands its taste buds. Palabok and tapa sit side by side with hamburgers and fries in the menu. The franchise does not force foreign fare down the people’s throat. Jollibee sweetens the servings to make it go down easy. The spaghetti, an Italian classic, is an example. They made it Filipino style, sweetened it and garnished it with hotdog and ham slices, and people gobble this up.

The phenomenon has reached international status, earning at least four features in The New York Times. One of which tells how the friendly bee stings Ronald in the Philippines. The Philippines is perhaps the only country in the world where McDonald’s is not the reigning burger chain. The bee has already marked its territory before the clown set its red boots on Philippine soil. In 2002, The Economist magazine wrote that the country “is a huge embarrassment to McDonalds.”

Try as Ronald may, he could not compete with the Filipino taste. It attempted to localize its burger and bring the Golden Arches closer to the Filipino heart with taglines like “love ko ‘to”. But it was no match to “ang sarap maging at home”.

Taste is just one part of the story. Jollibee also understands the Filipino. It understands that time with Lolo is spent sharing palabok and fries even if they don’t match. It understands that teens, as much as toddlers, love to pose beside the mascot for pictures, and there is nothing baduy about that. It is unabashedly kitschy with its bright colors and does not make apologies for it. After all, the Pinoy is all about color and celebration even in the midst of poverty.

Jollibee recognizes the fact that an occasional cheeseburger treat can cause a sting to the Filipino who earns below minimum wage. A chicken and spaghetti combo for many is not just a meal but a celebration, a splurge. The bee caters to this culture. It serves a feast in a plastic tray with a big smile. Let tomorrow’s meal worry about itself.

The bee knows the culture of Filipino celebration. It knows that a Pinoy will borrow money for a fiesta, to enjoy life through food and dance even with holes in the pocket. It is clearly evident even in Jollibee’s ads. Someone once wrote that you can tell much about a country’s culture through their TV commercials, spotlighting on Jollibee’s TV ads of singing, dancing and eating. And in almost every commercial there is always the family, the elderly couple who misses the langhap sarap or the young man who yearns for the Sunday Jollibee trips of his childhood. Everybody goes back, back to the taste of their youth.

(The author maintains a travel blog — www.anaviajera.com.)


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