On a cold day in New York City, just a short walk from Times Square, a line of people has formed; they're neatly herded by a rope in front of an unassuming building sandwiched between the city's many skyscrapers. A man stands guard by the door, asking individuals how many people are in their party and ushering in just a few at a time.
It isn't the scene outside some hot New York City nightclub. It's lunchtime in Midtown and the crowd is waiting to eat at Manhattan's first Jollibee — suddenly, it's the place to be.
Jollibee, known as "the McDonald's of the Philippines" — where it was founded — has a relatively small presence in the U.S.; there are only 37 stores over a handful of states. But in the Philippines the fast-food chain is an absolute sensation, handily beating McDonald's and Burger King in popularity and local market share. There, Jollibee has more than 750 stores and is a dominant market leader.
Now, Jollibee is aiming to win over more Americans, with plans to grow to 150 stores within the next five years. And it's making progress: Store openings attract crowds (at the October Manhattan location opening a couple showed up 20 hours early to be first in line for a year of free fried chicken), social media influencers love Jollibee, and fans and analysts alike have compared the food to American staples like Kentucky Fried Chicken. Jollibee declines to disclose U.S. sales figures but tells CNBC Make It that it had "record-setting, double-digit sales growth in 2017."
A big part of Jollibee's "secret sauce" is its menu, which is eclectic by American fast-food standards.
"One of the key things really is that it's popular food — fried chicken, pasta, pies — but it's twisted in a different way that's very true to Jollibee in its uniqueness," Jose Minana, Jollibee's group president for North America, tells CNBC Make It. "It's almost like a mosaic of different flavors, it's not just that one blanket that fits all."
Take Jolly Spaghetti: The red sauce on the noodles is sweet, made from banana ketchup (a Filipino staple), and the concoction also has ground meat, hot dog slices and cheese, which add a tangy flavor.
Then there's Jollibee's most famous offering — Chickenjoy. The hand-breaded fried chicken is praised for being crispy and juicy; it's made with a secret marinade and served with a side of gravy that's been called "ethereal. " It is often ordered as a combo with Jolly Spaghetti.
Some say Chickenjoy is even better than Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"[Jollibee] is going to be up there when we talk about Chick-fil-A and KFC, who's got the best chicken?" Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends and marketing at food and beverage consulting firm CCD Helmsman, tells CNBC Make It. "That I could see happening."
(Kentucky Fried Chicken did not respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment.)
But it's not just the spaghetti and chicken. Fans love menu items like Fiesta Noodles (a recreation of "pancit palabok," a noodle dish with toppings like shrimp, ground meat and hard-boiled eggs); Breakfast Joy Corned Beef (served with garlic rice and a fried egg); and for dessert, peach and Filipino mango pie or Halo-Halo (a concoction of shaved ice, ube and jackfruit ice cream, leche flan and jellies).
Prices are similar to other fast food, and Jollibee has stores in California, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia and Washington state. Its general strategy in the U.S. is to open in areas with denser Filipino-American populations, to give them a "familiar feeling of home," the company says.
In the busy Midtown Manhattan Jollibee — where employees chirp, "Have a jolly day!" while upbeat music plays in the background — 31-year-old patron Cara is originally from the Philippines. She says Chickenjoy is indeed nostalgic for her.
In the Philippines, "most kids have Jollibee birthday parties; we don't have McDonald's birthday parties," she says. "It's funny, because fried chicken is traditionally not a Filipino food thing, but somehow, Chickenjoy is, which is kind of weird and kind of surprising." She took her co-workers for their first Jollibee experience.
And Jollibee has been encouraged by the reception at the Manhattan location, where there is actually not a particularly big Filipino population, says Minana.
"It's very humbling when they share their gratitude for us coming here, saying, 'Thanks for giving us a new way of eating,'" Minana tells CNBC Make It.
Felix, an 18-year-old from Hoboken, New Jersey, is in the Midtown Jollibee munching Chickenjoy for the first time. "It's pretty good ... better than McDonald's," he says. (McDonald's did not immediately return CNBC Make It's request for comment.)
He's there because his girlfriend saw an influencer eating Jollibee on Instagram.
And that is another key to Jollibee's growing success — the brand naturally resonates with the young, social media set, say analysts.
On YouTube there are scores of vloggers tasting everything on the Jollibee menu. A video by Bloveslife and PatrickStarrr alone got nearly 600,000 views in a matter of months. Competitive eater and vlogger Matt Stonie filmed himself doing the "Jollibee Five Bucket Fried Chicken Challenge," for which he ate 30 pieces of Chickenjoy in 27 minutes. The post has more than 9 million views on Youtube.
Jollibee worship is also on fire on Instagram, with over half a million posts dedicated to the fast-food establishment.
"Modern consumers curate their identity, in part, through social channels," Jeff Fromm, president of millennial-trends marketing consultancy FutureCast, tells CNBC Make It. And Jollibee is not only Instagrammable, it is accessible.
"I can try Thai food or Filipino food or a number of any other kind of foods, and it's a $10 investment," he says.
"Experiences are a currency," adds Fromm.
Nielsen says Jollibee also fits millennials' world view: "They are much more open-minded to discovering things," Nielsen says. "And the sooner you start trying something, it becomes part of your taste-set, it becomes part of your identity."
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