Scenes From the Frontlines of Jollibee’s Joyful, Frenzied Michigan Debut

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To the left, a woman with a red jacket, center, a red and yellow bee character wearing a red jacket, bow tie, chef hat, and a male with short hair and black jacket holding a noise maker. Fatima Syed

Jollibee’s first Michigan location is pure service to its devoted Filipino fanbase

by Eleanore Catolico

Photography by Fatima Syed

“JOLLI MORNINGGGG!” Maribeth Dela Cruz, the North American president of Filipino fast-food juggernaut Jollibee, hypes up a swarm of superfans on a blustery Friday morning in Sterling Heights. A dedicated group of more than 200 is buzzing for fried chicken and the realization of a long-awaited dream.

After much delay, Jollibee opened to a joyful frenzy on January 12, becoming the first franchise location in the Great Lakes State. On this morning, “finally” is the crowd’s shared sentiment.

Temperatures are so frigid one could curse the sky, but the fans are just as amped as the starstruck fans you might see at a Hollywood premiere. An emcee sporting long brown beach waves helps Dela Cruz hype up the crowd, keeping the vibe lit and spirits high. A traditional jazz band entertains. The Jolli-zeal is real.

Faiz Marro, a senior at Sterling Heights High School, was the first customer in line for Jollibee’s grand opening on January 12, 2024. He won a bag of merch.

A cavalcade of cars stuffs the restaurant’s double drive-thru (yes, it has two drive-thrus!); the line is so long it spirals around the block. Just under two dozen brave souls have camped overnight hoping to score a deal. The first 100 customers to spend $20 or more at the opening get a free Chickenjoy each month for a year.

Take notice, fried chicken aficionados: There’s a new star in town.

Sandwiched between a Chipotle and La-Z-Boy furniture store, next to Lakeside Mall, the restaurant was built on an old Denny’s site that was shuttered in 2020.

The design is eye-catching. On the roof, a big red bucket of Chickenjoy oversees the suburb’s epicenter of strip malls. The bucket joins the Golden Ring as one of those “Well, wontcha look at that” landmarks. Inside, the restaurant has a cozy dining room of gray booths and a long, wooden table with red cushioned seats. On Thursday morning, a priest blessed the restaurant and workers tossed coins, a Filipino cultural custom that is said to bring prosperity.

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy and mac and cheese in red and white cups, a yellow liquid in a clear cup with a red bee wearing a chef hat and Jollibee in red printed on it and a bun set on a red tray with multi-colored liner and a red and white Jollibee bucket set next to it on a light surface.

The legend of Jollibee began on the streets of Manila. Founder Tony Tan Caktiong and his family opened an ice cream parlor in 1975. The family began serving hot meals to sustain the business — a choice that changed their fortunes forever. Three years later, the first Jollibee opened; today, it’s one of the largest fast-food chains in the world, driven in no small part by a devoted international Filipino diaspora.

When local news outlets reported the opening of Jollibee’s first Michigan location in 2021, word spread fast on social media, and percolated among Filipino locals. The Sterling Heights arrival marks a key step for the company’s expansion across North America: Jollibee has more than 70 locations in the United States, and most are in California, according to the company’s website. Sterling Heights was chosen for its business traffic, vibrant restaurant options, and large Filipino community, says Nick Bedell, Jollibee’s North American marketing director.

No matter the distance, it’s a common creed among Filipinos to drive anywhere for food reppin’ the archipelago. Based on my lived experience, Pinoys are eaters. We eat. A bonus of the new Sterling Heights haunt: savings on gas mileage. Just ask Frederick Macatula, an engineer from Detroit, and his sister-in-law Claire, an attorney from Troy. The Macatulas have feasted on Jollibee in Toronto and Chicago but never in Michigan — until now. They are the 14th and 15th customers in line. Claire enjoys the peach mango pie and spicy chicken sandwich. Frederick likes the adobo rice.

For Claire, the fast-food chain conjures up nostalgia. During trips to the Philippines, she and the family always ate Jollibee. “It’s a fun childhood memory,” she says.

“We wouldn’t be here today without [them],” says Bedell. “So we’re incredibly grateful. We love embracing and being with that community. We also really think that the brand is for everyone.”

A red bucket filled with chicken.

The menu goes hard on comfort food with a Filipino twist. The Chickenjoy, Jollibee’s signature hand-breaded fried chicken dish, is juicy and crunchy. In 2022, Eater dubbed Chickenjoy as the best chain fried chicken in America, beating out Bonchon’s sauced chicken wings. The spicy chicken sandwich with Sriracha mayo and jalapeno slices packs just enough heat to tingle the taste buds.

On the sweet side, the peach mango pie, made from Filipino mangoes, is flaky on the outside, gooey on the inside — a snack that helps me keep the demons away. The pineapple quencher soft drink is refreshing; she’s giving Fourth of July backyard barbecue sweet punch vibes.

A peach mango pie is cracked open revealing it’s gloriously gooey insides.

Jollibee’s sides include adobo rice, biscuits, as well as spaghetti with chopped up hot dogs (side note: A humbler version of this dish was a staple for this Filipino baby girl reporter’s family table). There’s also mashed potatoes and gravy and the baked cheddar macaroni and cheese, newer options on the Jollibee menu.

The costs of the items range from $2.69 for a two-piece biscuit order to $35 for a family combo meal of Chickenjoy, spaghetti, and peach mango pies.

If you’re a fried chicken connoisseur, you may make room in your heart and stomach for Jollibee. But back to the mayhem of that opening day line.

A woman with dark hair and a headset on, smiling, looking down, holding a paper with cups with yellow liquid in front of her.

The grand opening is minutes away. Suddenly, a happy-go-lucky red bee steps forward, throwing caution to the freezing wind, uniformed in a lil’ white chef hat, red tuxedo jacket, and a pair of wings. One can get lost in its big, oblong eyes. They cast a spell.

“JOLLIBEE! JOLLIBEE! JOLLIBEE!” The thunderous chant from the bundled-up crowd seems to please the world-famous bee.

Out of nowhere, it begins breakdancing on the concrete, making fried chicken zealots of us all.

The bee claps its hands while a DJ plays Jollibee’s dangerously catchy theme song. It waves its arms like a preacher inspiring a congregation.

The Jolli-faithful are energized and enthralled. Some use their smartphones to capture the bee being iconic and nailing the choreo. The mega brand’s ambassador of joy and laughter and carpe-diem swag defrosts the drab winter blues while wearing no pants.

All hail the red bee. We mortals are unworthy.

Around 8:50 p.m. on Thursday and fresh off his midterms, Faiz Marro, a senior at Sterling Heights High School, decided to claim his spot in line. He sat in a chair, wrapped himself in a blanket, and waited, playing Uno to pass the time.

His devotion pays off: At 9 a.m. the next morning, he’s the first lucky customer in line when the doors swing wide, winning a haul of goodies, including stickers, a T-shirt, and a Jollibee figurine, not to mention bragging rights.

Gleeful, Marro is among the uninitiated; he’s never eaten Jollibee before. He’s eager to try the adobo rice. Expanding culinary horizons is part of his character. “I like everything,” Marro says. “What’s not to try?”

Jollibee employees in red and gray pack plastic to-go bags.

Handwritten well-wishes and adulation tattoo an oversized greeting card resting on the store’s glass window pane. The Jollibee fans have made their voices heard. And cursive is not dead:

“Yay!!! Jollibee finally in my hood. <3 Bingbong Rat”

“Welcome to Pure Michigan!”

“We’re No. 1 in Michigan! We spread joy & happiness. <3 Merle”

“I <3 Jollibee”

“A piece of home in Michigan! I <3 Jollibee”

Two registered nurses — Lowela Dequito, hailing from the Philippines’s Western Visayas region, and Sheryl Bedayo from Iloilo — immigrated to the United States in the early 2000s. They say they crave a taste of home. Residents of Sterling Heights, they’ve been sitting in the car since 4:45 a.m., shivering together. Still, the two are happy. The new fast-food joint is a mile away from Dequito’s house.

A crowd of people wearing winter gear outside of Jollibee in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
Frederick Macatula (left) and Claire Macatula (center left) stand in line for Jollibee’s opening in Sterling Heights on January 12, 2024.

“We waited this long. I think they all miss this food,” Dequito says, referring to her fellow Filipinos. “That’s why they’re all here. It’s worth the line.” Dequito holds number 28; Bedayo number 30.

The countdown begins. With infinite energy and killer dance moves, the bee boogies to Katy Perry’s “Firework.”

“ONE MORE MINUTE!” the emcee screams. Soon enough, 9 a.m. hits. Multicolored confetti flutters in the air. “WE’RE GOIN’ IN!” a voice shouts. An orderly procession of hoodies and puffer coats and a North Face parka file into the restaurant, phones lifted, fists pumped. On this day in hyperlocal fast-food history, Chickenjoy reigns supreme.

Jollibee is located at 44945 Woodridge Drive in Sterling Heights, Michigan. The restaurant is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday.

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