Chickenjoy power: Jollibee opens first store in the UK
LONDON, United Kingdom – “How long do you think we will have to queue for?” was the question Ellen, a Filipina who has been living in London for eight years now, asked me as we stood outside the Jollibee store on Earl’s Court Road on a wet, cold morning, three days before the scheduled October 20 opening of the restaurant.
Ellen said she and her friends (“madami kami”) were planning to be at the store at 11 a.m. on Saturday, "in time for lunch."
Long queues are already a given in any Jollibee international store opening, with many Filipinos eager to have a taste of their favorite fare aiming to be there on opening day.
The Earl’s Court branch is Jollibee’s first store in the UK, and only the second in Europe – the first was in Milan, Italy, which opened earlier this year.
A Jollibee official, who happened to be standing outside the store, told Ellen that the queue would probably take an average of four hours. He said that when the Milan store opened in March, people were already queueing at 3 am – the store was scheduled to open at 8 am.
“Ay, ang tagal pala (Wow, it's a long wait),” Ellen said. But when I asked whether she had changed her mind about her plans for Saturday, she replied: “No, we’re still going.”
Not just Pinoys
It is not only Filipinos living in the UK who are eagerly anticipating the opening of a Jollibee store.
Journalist Joe Murtagh, who has never been to the Philippines, is among the many Londoners excited to try what he described as being "a far more interesting-looking version of McDonald's." He first learned about Jollibee on the travel and food TV series Parts Unknown, hosted by the late Anthony Bourdain.
"It was Bourdain's visit to Jollibee that really piqued my interest. To see a world-class chef so enthusiastic about a fast-food chain as he ate what, to me, looked like an exotic concoction of rice, chicken and gravy, meant this must be good,” said Murtagh. “It made me really want to try it."
Siobhan, a British twenty-something who was raised in Hong Kong, grew up loving Chickenjoy and Jolly spaghetti. Her Filipina nanny would frequently take her to Jollibee then. When her family, with the nanny, moved back to the UK, Siobhan said that among the things she missed was Jollibee. So when she read in an online news article in late 2015 that Jollibee was opening a London store "in 2016," she was very excited.
It turned out to be a long two-year wait for Siobhan “but at least Jollibee is finally here," she said. Siobhan is lucky. She lives in London and Earl’s Court is just a few minutes commute from where she is working.
For Filipinos living outside the capital, going to Jollibee would require a lot of planning.
Glynis Stringer, a mother of three, is going to the Philippine embassy in London next week, and she plans to have lunch at Jollibee before she goes back home to South East England. “I will also order chickenjoy to take away – for my boys,” she said.
It is no surprise that Jollibee chose Earl’s Court to house its first UK store. The area has traditionally been a hub for Filipinos living in London: it has 3 Filipino grocery stores, two Filipino restaurants, a BPI Europe branch, a Filipino hair salon and remittance centres.
Although there are 200,000 Filipinos living across the UK, according to the latest figures from the Philippine embassy, Jollibee is interested not only in having a captive Filipino clientele.
Jollibee UK’s general manager Fred Ventura said they also wanted to attract customers of British and other nationalities. He said this was why Earl’s Court was the ideal location for the first Jollibee store.
The area has a busy pedestrian traffic, and people of various nationalities live there. The Jollibee store is two blocks from the Earl’s Court Underground station and is in front of a bus stop. It is one among many fast-food chains in the area: a McDonald’s and a KFC are a block away.
“Those who are walking in the area, when they see our Jollibee store and want to try something new, maybe they’ll say, ‘Why don’t we try that?’” said Ventura.
He could be right. When I went to the Jollibee store on Wednesday, several people did a double-take when they noticed this restaurant with a sign saying: Home of the Famous Chickenjoy. Not a few knocked on the door, thinking that it was already open for business.
The Earl’s Court branch, which can seat 92 people, has yet to open but Jollibee is already planning to open more stores in the UK: 25 branches by 2023, including a flagship store, according to Ventura.
Jollibee’s UK expansion plans come even as many casual dining restaurants in the country have been closing branches, among them Jamie’s Italian (by television chef Jamie Oliver) and Byron burger. The closures have been blamed on rising costs and intense competition.
But Ventura is unfazed: “We’re a fast-food budget restaurant. We’re even cheaper than KFC.”
Jollibee has not released its final price list at the time of this writing, but Ventura promises that prices will be competitive.
The Earl’s Court branch will have 55 staff, 60% of whom are Filipino-British. During the first few days of the store’s opening, the staff will be backed by a support group from other Jollibee stores around the world who were flown in to help.
During the first few months, the store will be serving mainly just the Jollibee staples of Chickenjoy with gravy and rice, spaghetti, yumburger, burger steak, sundaes, among others.
It will introduce palabok, peach mango pie and the usual Jollibee breakfast menu later this year. Halo-halo will be added to the list sometime next year – probably in summer, according to Ventura.
The Earl’s Court store is open from 8 am to 11 pm; in comparison, the nearby McDonald’s is open from 5 am to 2 am the next day, and the KFC from 10 am to 1 am the next day.
The Jollibee edge?
There is no doubt that Jollibee is the most popular fast-food chain in the Phiippines. The big question, however, is how the Earl’s Court branch and Jollibee’s planned additional UK stores could attract a large number of non-Filipino customers to keep the restaurant group profitable.
Chickenjoy, rather than Jollibee’s other offerings, might be the answer.
Fried chicken, according to reports, is now the UK’s fastest-growing fast food. It has become so popular that one of the biggest news earlier this year was when KFC temporarily shut more than half its UK its stores because it had run out of chicken (due to a supply chain problem). This prompted widespread complaints from those who wanted their fix of fried chicken.
A Member of Parliament said his constituents contacted him about the matter; the police even had to issue a statement asking the public not to contact them about the “KFC crisis” because “it is not a police matter if your favorite eatery is not serving the menu that you desire."
Chickenjoy is definitely the most popular offering on Jollibee’s menu; it now accounts for 60% of the company’s worldwide sales, according to Ventura, and the company wants to concentrate on fried chicken.
The company could be on the right track.
Thomas Bretherton, a teacher who loves Filipino food, said he once tried Jollibee’s yumburger when he was in Manila a few years ago. “It tasted a bit weird. I didn’t like it,” he said.
But while he would probably not order a yumburger again, Bretherton said he would not mind going to a Jollibee restaurant in the UK. “I would like to try it again,” he said.
Asked if he would order Chickenjoy, Bretherton replied: “Yes, I will. I like fried chicken.” – Rappler.com