With over 1,000 McDonald’s and 900 KFC sites across Britain, any newcomer to the nation’s fast-food sector has a difficult task convincing hungry consumers, who are craving a quick and reliable fix to enter its premises.
For Jollibee – a Filipino-originated fried chicken chain, headed by billionaire businessman Tony Tan Caktiong – some may argue its cult following across Asia gave it a head start when it decided to launch its first outlet in Earls Court, London back in 2018.
Today, Jollibee operates 1,300 sites with only 234 of those stores located in areas outside of the Philippines. However, with the company recently investing £30m in expanding its UK offering it’s clear the chain is determined to carve out a place in the western fast-food market.
Why the UK?
In Asia, Jollibee is a household name and it has also held an established position in the United States since the early 1990s – so what was the group’s motivation behind furthering its expansion into the UK?
According to Adam Parkinson, VP of the group’s European operations, one of the core reasons around its expansion was to reach Fillipino expats who had left the country, and provide them with a “taste of home”. But Parkinson, who joined the group in July 2019, says the chain was also hungry to attract a new wider western audience, mainly young millennials and Gen Zs, who says “could ensure the future of the brand is safe”.
To do this, Jollibee had to make some changes to its existing UK offering, namely through its social media presence with the group migrating from its traditional Filipino-centric feel and altering the tone and visuals to create a more contemporary one which could appeal to the young western eye.
Parkinson, confesses that this process was a “tricky balancing act,” as the company was also cautious of making sure its base business of loyal Fillpinio customers would not be upset by its more eurocentric rebrand. In a bid to pay homage to its South East Asian roots the company’s new flagship store which will open this May in Lecister square will feature a “wall hung gallery of inspirational pictures” from across Asia, which hope to share the history of the 40-year-old brand.
Despite Jollibee’s investment into ensuring it can win over a new customer base, Parkinson says the brand is still bringing something new to the British market. The menu sports “niche items” that would be unusual to the typical English palette, such as a burger steak served with rice and a spaghetti dish topped with sausage pieces.
Parkinson is aware that the UK’s casual dining experience is already full of both Asian and traditional fast-food options, however he is confident that the brand’s affordable price point along with the quality of its goods might just be able to sway consumers. “We are trying to create a high standard product without taking away the fast-food price,” he says.
Currently, the company breads all its chicken in store and its sauces are handmade. In terms of cost, the company sells a chicken burger for £3.99. He is also hopeful that the store can attract workers on their lunch break, perhaps looking for a quick but healthy option – with the store also selling bean sprouts and Asian slaws as an alternative to a deep fried product.
In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Jollibee opened restaurants in both Liverpool and Leicester, a decision which Parkinson says was “tough”. However he says the move was fueled by the company’s ethos of “working for the long term,” and it would also give them a head start on other competitors who may have put off entering the UK due to the pandemic.
The VP is upfront and honest about the new stores profitably, saying that he would be “lying” if he said “it was all roses”. At the moment, sites are just “breaking even,” with Parkinson blaming a current “lack of traffic” on the highstreet and extra spending on Covid equipment such as PPE.
The employee experience
While carrying out its UK expansion, Jollibee has created 100 new roles during the pandemic. While the jobs market may currently be tough for those pursuing a career in the hospitality sector, global fast-food chains have not always had the best reputation when it comes to the treatment of its workers. Think back to the 2018 McStrike, which saw UK workers at McDonald’s plead for their employers to pay them a “living wage” of £10 per hour.
So with another company expanding into the country, is Jollibee doing anything different to ensure its employees are being treated arguably better than its competitors? Parkinson says that in 2020 the company ranked 239 out of 750 in Forbes World Best Employers list, something he credits to the brand’s “family spirit”.
“In the Philippines the owners are very much present in the stores and talk to employees should they need to reach out to them and give feedback on how the businesses are going,” he says.
Currently, in the UK the company has 150 staff members, a figure which will soon reach 700 after new outlets launch in Edinburgh and Cardiff before the end of the year. Parkinson adds that he is positive about Jollibee retaining its ‘employer of choice’ status in Britain as it continues to expand.
“I think in the near future, we will look for strong franchising partners to help us grow. In doing that, you then downsize the size of the company. Rather than trying to run the whole of Europe, you may have a partner to run a particular country who shares the same values as the company does,” he explains.
Looking into the post-covid landscape, the VP says the biggest test the company faces lies in eventually opening a store next to its main competitor, KFC. While Parkinson is not interested in bashing the brand – instead he sees them as an “inspiration” – he does believe that Jollibee’s investment in the brand’s modern look and diverse menu, may just pay dividends.