Tony Tan Caktiong takes a big bite of the Big Apple

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

NEW YORK – Almost at any given time, Times Square pulsates with infectious energy lively, brightly illuminated, and always moving. There’s a night-as-day vibe as loud music reverberates from the speakers, neon lights dance continuously, and strangers’ love and dreams collide 24/7.

It’s touted as the Crossroads of the World and aptly so; some 125,000 people pass this part of this city everyday, even reaching 450,000 on the busiest days.

And it’s not about to slow down as the world continuously reopens. This famed commercial hub here is as busy as ever. I found myself right smack in the middle of the hustle and bustle,  with a towering Statue of Liberty walking around together with Iron Man, Spiderman and Phantom, and some other characters channeled by New York’s street artists.

But for Pinoys here, the most attractive presence in Times Square now isn’t some Marvel super hero or Disney character, but the newest fixture in the district – Jolly Bee himself, that famed mascot of tycoon Tony Tan Caktiong’s Philippine-listed global food giant Jollibee Foods Corp.

Yes, that familiar chubby anthropomorphic bee mascot dressed in a bright red blazer, shirt, and chef’s hat, arrived in Times Square last week with the opening of Jollibee’s new outlet.

Eight years in the making

Los Angeles-based Maribeth Dela Cruz, Jollibee Group president for brands Jollibee, Chowking, and Red Ribbon in North America, says the opening of the Times Square store has long been a goal of the group since roughly eight years ago.

“It’s a dream for us to be in Times Square. It sends a message that Jollibee is here to stay,” she says.

But it wasn’t easy. This is because outside the Philippines, the environment is different. While Jollibee is the top fastfood chain in our country, it’s not the same abroad.

At the time, Jollibee was still relatively “an unknown brand” in the US.

Thus, it first had to build the brand to be worthy of a place in Times Square where every square inch is highly coveted. Landlords just will not lease to lesser known companies, perhaps to maintain the prominence of the district.

“Landlords are very picky,” Dela Cruz says.

It was even more difficult to get a place within the bowtie-shaped part of Times Square where the world famous New Year’s Eve ball drop happens every Dec. 31. But it had to be in the bow tie or none at all, says Dela Cruz.

“It’s difficult to find a place in the bow tie. We had to wait patiently to get the attention of landlords,” she says.

But Dela Cruz, passionate, indefatigable and driven, and one of Jollibee’s top women leaders was determined to make that Times Square dream come true.

“One day, we will be here,” she recalls whispering to herself a few years back.

Earning its place in Manhattan

Thus, with its commitment and persistence to build the brand, Jollibee finally earned its spot here in Midtown Manhattan, marking another first in its ambitious international expansion program and contributing to sustained growth in one of its key pillar markets, North America.

It continues to grow its presence in the US and Canada, with plans to reach 500 stores in the next five to seven years, Dela Cruz says.

Inside the store

During a visit to the store one afternoon last week, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the long queues have not abated since the new outlet opened last Aug. 18.

Jollibee Times Square is right in the whirlwind of activities, located just beside Good Morning America and a stone’s throw away from the NYPD station and the curved seven-story Nasdaq market site.

Once inside the store, I saw a melting pot; people of different ages and colors filled the dining place to the brim.  The crew, too, was a diverse crowd.

“Diversity is something we espouse,” says Dela Cruz.

During my visit, the long lines didn’t even ease. There were Filipinos, African – Americans, Europeans and other Asians. Some are curious first-timers while others are big Jollibee fans.

Their favorite dish? The world-famous Jollibee Chickenjoy, says Filipina executive Jefy Auxillo, Jollibee’s senior director for operations for the East Coast.

There are many other items on the menu, such as the Chicken Sandwich, Peach Mango Pie, and Jolly Spaghetti.

That afternoon, I chanced upon a kababayan Olivia Gutierrez and her friend Aliyya Bhati, a Pakistani. Tney both work at Shop & Stuff here.

It’s the first time for Aliyya who was easily wowed by the Chickenjoy. “It’s very tender and tasty,” she says.

For Olivia, in the US for 11 years now, Jollibee is a source of pride and a much needed reminder of home. “Every time I eat at Jollibee, I feel like I’m back home.”

It is perhaps a sentiment shared by Pinoys from the world over and they have more to look forward to as Jollibee chairman Tony Tan Caktiong continues to gobble up markets across the globe.

After taking a big bite of the Big Apple, Jollibee will have more openings as it aims to be among the top five restaurants in the world.

Props to Jollibee for waving the Philippine flag from Manila to New York and many places in between.



Iris Gonzales’ email address is [email protected].

Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com


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