Leilani Encarnacion and pals pose with the Jollibee mascot Credit: Courtesy Leilani Encarnacion

Almost every Filipino child has a core memory of posing for a photo next to a big red bee.

Since its 1978 founding in Quezon City, Philippines, Jollibee and its mascot have been a hallmark of Filipino popular culture. Although the fast food chain is now among the largest in the world, Filipinos love the brand for more than fried chicken and sweet spaghetti.

The store opened its first Philly location this summer, providing people of Filipino heritage in the city a cherished opportunity to connect with their roots.

“Jollibee opening up in Philly is the gateway to Filipino culture — and not even just [that, but] Asian culture in general,” said Paolo Jay Agbay, 30, who immigrated to South Philadelphia with his family in 1996.

When he arrived in the city, Agbay recalled seeing strong Italian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese communities, but initially struggled to find a Filipino one. He also found that other cultures’ Southeast and East Asian food was more familiar to the western palate.

Filipino restaurants like East Passyunk’s family-style joint Perla and the Tambayan booth in Reading Terminal Market have been increasing visibility, but Agbay said a fast food chain opens a different door.

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“Being someone who was born and partially raised in the Philippines, I have fond memories of going there as a child,” Venise Salcedo, a 25-year-old Spring Garden resident, told Billy Penn. The atmosphere at the store in the Great Northeast Plaza shopping complex, with its background noise of children playing and Tagalog chatter, makes her feel like she’s back home.

Jollibee has 1,300 locations internationally and 70 in North America, but before the chain set up shop at 7340 Bustleton Ave., the closest location to Philadelphia was over an hour away in Edison, N.J.

“It made my family happy knowing they can easily go now,” said Leliani Encarnacion, 23, who grew up in North Philadelphia with a family of Filipino restaurant owners before moving to Bensalem, just outside the city. She waited three hours on opening weekend of the Northeast Philly location to snag a bucket of fried chicken.

Breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? Jollibee Philadelphia is open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week Credit: Walden Green for Billy Penn

Yearning for a piece of home is a shared experience among Filipino immigrants worldwide. Around 9% of the Philippines’ GDP last year came from overseas Filipino workers, who also sent a record-breaking $34 billion to friends and family members back home, according to the Central Bank of the Philippines.

“I was completely oblivious to the Filipino community here in Philly,” said Agbay. “Growing up, that was something I yearned for. So when Jollibee opened up, I was surprised that Philly was chosen.”

Some suggested Jollibee’s expansion to the city signals a growing number of Filipinos in the region. Filipinos comprise 19% of the U.S. Asian population, per a A 2021 Pew report, and they’ve been immigrating to Philadelphia since the early 1900s, around the end of the Philippine-American war. Most regional population data on Asian communities in the U.S. is aggregated, so it’s hard to get a firm count, but according to Eliseo Art Silva, author of “Filipinos of Greater Philadelphia,” in 2012 there were over 35,000 Filipinos in the Philly area.

Local Filipinos are not only excited for the nostalgia a piece of Jollibee fried chicken could bring, but are also eager to share the experience with people who’ve never tasted a peach mango pie or palabok.

Said Encarnacion, of Bensalem: “I think it’s awesome to be able to share more Filipino food with those who have never tried Filipino food before.”

Kristine Villanueva leads Resolve Philly’s initiative Equally Informed, which addresses barriers to news and information in marginalized communities across Philadelphia. Before joining Resolve, she worked...