Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 29/3/2017 (1918 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the connection local Filipinos have with fast-food chain Jollibee better than the peach-mango pie.
If apple pie serves as short-hand for the American way of life, Jollibee’s beloved tropical version signifies the sweet comforts of home to many new Winnipeggers for whom the dessert — a dollop of bright yellow-orange filling sealed in a flaky envelope of pastry — calls up memories of family dinners or trips to Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
Founded in 1978, Jollibee is the largest fast-food chain in the Philippines, with more than 950 stores (by comparison, there are 449 McDonald’s outlets).
In December, the company opened its first Canadian restaurant in Winnipeg at 1406 Ellice Ave.
"Winnipeg is a fitting choice for Jollibee’s first Canadian store because it has largest density of Filipinos to the total population of the city," Maribeth dela Cruz, vice-president for Jollibee Foods Corporation North America, said at the time.
The company did not underestimate the market. For the restaurant’s grand opening, hundreds of people lined up outside in bone-chilling cold — some as early as 1 a.m. — for their chance to be first to taste the flavours they’d been missing.
Some Winnipeggers expressed disbelief the hype was real. Commenters on Facebook and Twitter theorized the company was paying people to blitz social media and queue for food in -25 C temperatures.
But for Juan (Jay) Jimenez, 25, who moved to Winnipeg from the Philippines at age 13, there was nothing fake about the excitement.
He got in line with his mother at 5 a.m. for the 7 a.m. opening. At the door, they received a ticket telling them to come back at 4 p.m.; when they did, it was another two hours before they were served (the restaurant provided heated trailers to house the hungry fans).
The English language arts teacher at West Kildonan Collegiate says it was worth every minute.
"It tasted exactly like how I remembered it," Jimenez says. "It was nostalgia. I feel like a kid again whenever I eat Jollibee."
That nostalgia has yet to wear thin; Jimenez has visited the restaurant almost every week since it opened.
"It’s practically my childhood," he says, laughing. "Almost every Friday my mom would come home from work and she would bring Jollibee. That would be like our treat for working hard throughout the week.
"She would bring spaghetti, chicken and peach-mango pie — that was like my favourite thing in my whole life when I was growing up."
Jollibee’s Winnipeg menu doesn’t quite mimic the full Filipino experience. It has the chain’s slightly tweaked versions of standard North American fast food, such as burgers and fries, and palabok, a variety of the familiar noodle dish pancit, but it doesn’t include spam sliders or the chain’s quintessential shaved-ice dessert halo-halo.
However, the items it provides ring bells for the local Pinoy community. There’s Chickenjoy (super-crispy fried chicken, spicy or regular, with a skin that stays unbelievably, some would say unnaturally, crunchy) served with a side of rice and gravy; the Jolly Spaghetti (dished up in kid-friendly Filipino style, with a very sweet meat sauce that includes slices of hotdog) and of course, that famous, beloved pie.
The rice, an essential component of Filipino cuisine, is one thing that sets Jollibee apart from other fast-food chicken joints, where the usual starchy side would be potatoes.
"They put mushrooms and gravy with the chicken — that’s not new; they do that here (in Canada) — but they put rice beside it, all of a sudden everybody eats it," says Philippines-born Rose Lockert, 42, who moved to Winnipeg in 1996. "They modify the product so it appeals to our culture, specifically.
"Some people really miss it because it’s something that they had all the time, growing up," Lockert explains. "And some people might want to try it because it’s a status symbol. For some it’s like an adventure, ‘It’s something I want to try for the sake of trying it; I don’t want to be left out.’"
Lockert, the married mother of one son and a foster mom to four other children, doesn’t have Jimenez’s childhood attachment to the chain. She lived in a small town in Pampanga province, about 80 kilometres northwest of Manila; at the time, Jollibee was only accessible to those who lived in big cities.
Jollibee was out of reach in other ways, too. Though the most expensive item on the menu in the Philippines — eight pieces of Chickenjoy, with four sides, four drinks and four orders of rice — is 579 pesos (C$15.45) and the average cost of a combo is about C$3.50 (here it’s about $8), the standard of living is different.
"(At home) it was something to look forward to when we have our paycheque. It’s not every day you can go to Jollibee, because it’s expensive. You don’t earn that much money, to just go there and eat," Lockert says.
"But here, of course, you don’t have to wait for payday to have a burger or something. Well, some people might, but it’s not like in the Philippines where you have to wait forever to taste their food, or save up for a long time. It’s not a regular meal (there); it’s a treat."
Jimenez echoes the sentiment.
"I was too young (to see it as a status symbol), but in retrospect, yeah. We were a middle-class family (of six); the fact that my mom could afford Jollibee for the whole family every week was something."
Lockert finally ate her first peach-mango pie when she visited the Philippines in 2003 and has been craving it ever since. Like many others in the city’s Filipino community, she was pleased and proud when Winnipeg was selected for the first Canadian location.
"It’s like the feeling when we first got our Jollibee in Pampanga," says Lockert. "Because Manila had it, so we flocked there... it’s a craze and nobody wants to be left out."
Of course, every craze has its detractors. To Filipino-Canadian Allan Pineda, who runs Baon Manila Nights, monthly pop-up dinners featuring Filipino fusion food, the enthusiasm is baffling.
"Thousands of people show up there, there’s trucks, balloons, whatever," says the Winnipeg chef, 40. "When a new local Filipino (restaurant) opens, nothing. Why are they so gung-ho about supporting something like that that’s fast food, when you have good restaurants and good food? Where’s the support?"
The Jollibee juggernaut will roll on, however.
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When the second location opens on McPhillips Street later this year, Lockert says her family is already planning to make it a cultural night out, seeing a Filipino movie at the Northgate cinema and then having dinner at Jollibee.
"I will be there for the opening," Jimenez predicts. "I think the Northgate one will be crazier, because the area is very Filipino. It’s by Maples, it’s by Sisler."
Lockert is hard-pressed to put her finger on exactly what Jollibee is to Filipinos, but she does know what it isn’t.
"When they say it’s the McDonald’s of the Philippines? It’s not McDonald’s of the Philippines. I can’t describe it, but it’s not. It’s not.
"When you have Jollibee, it’s like you’re home."
Jill Wilson Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.
In Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the author is overwhelmed by childhood memories via the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea.
He writes: “(T)he smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
Jolly Spaghetti might not have the elegant appeal of a French pastry, but it has a similar power to transport.
To a diner who didn’t grow up on it, it’s nothing special: overcooked noodles with a gloppy, super-sweet, alarmingly red meat sauce that contains cut-up hotdog wieners. It’s topped with shredded cheese and served in a cardboard takeout container.
The sweetness is a hallmark of Filipino spaghetti in general, but the Jollibee brand has a magical hold on its fans — and even a newbie will admit there’s something oddly addictive about the sauce.
“You can have spaghetti everywhere, but theirs is different,” Rose Lockert says. “When we cook spaghetti, we try to figure out what’s in it. Maybe they put this or that...
“I don’t think we can imitate it — and we want that taste.”
“The spaghetti is sweet, so it’s very different from Italian spaghetti,” says Jay Jimenez. “I’m not sure what they put in Jollibee spaghetti, but in general, what we use is banana ketchup — it’s a sweeter type of ketchup that’s not made out of tomatoes at all.”
Winnipeg chef Roddy Seradilla isn’t convinced the local version uses banana ketchup — “I think it’s just regular ketchup, and lots and lots of sugar,” he says — but he doesn’t discount the hold the flavour has on the Pinoy population.
He’s made a version of Filipino pasta at his Corydon Avenue restaurant, Bisita. The concoction, featuring penne instead of spaghetti, shallots rather than onions and longanisa sausage in place of the mystery meat, was a hit with customers who told him “it tastes like Jollibee!”
“I wasn’t sure whether to take that as a compliment,” Seradilla says with a laugh.