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The ‘McDonald’s of the Philippines’ opens a rare U.S. outpost here

The Jollibee mascot, a bee 'chef' that clearly signals this is fast food. Credit: Hugo Kugiya

A widely circulated tenet of folk-diplomacy asserts that no two countries that both have McDonald’s franchises will ever wage war against each other.

The premise of the theory, which has been around for at least a few decades, is that war is an act of desperation, of having nothing to lose. And if you have a McDonald’s, then you must have the social and economic infrastructure to support it, and therefore you do have something to lose and would rather not fight a war. Especially if you can happily eat Big Macs and McNuggets with your family instead. Put two countries like that in a conflict and they will probably not try to kill each other to resolve it.

The theory was even given a name by the famous columnist Thomas Friedman, who scrutinized the concept in a column in 1996, the first year McDonald’s earned more money overseas than in the U.S. He called it the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. Making exceptions for civil wars, he argued convincingly, at the time, that the theory was pretty solid.

True, Great Britain and Argentina fought a war over the Falkland Islands in 1982, but that was four years before Argentina got its first McDonald’s.

The American military intervention in the former Yugoslavia could be used to counter the theory (in 1988, Yugoslavia became the first Iron Curtain country to get a McDonald’s), but the U.S. was acting as a member of NATO, not on its own.

And true, the U.S. did invade Panama in 1989 in order to overthrow its leader, the dictator Manuel Noriega. And yes, there is the ongoing battle between Lebanon and Israel, but that conflict predated the arrival of McDonald’s in those countries. And then there is the war between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, but you could argue that’s really a civil war. The bigger point is that the vast majority of countries that have a McDonald’s (about 120) get along just fine.

The even bigger point is that prosperity and shared consumer values go a long way toward keeping the peace in our globalized world (between countries and within them), whether that shared interest comes from having McDonald’s (which made news this week when it announced plans to hire 50,000 people in one day), a mutual love of cricket, or something else.

Like Jollibee, perhaps.

Jollibee is the McDonald’s of the Philippines, a fast-food giant that owns several brands of other fast-food chains. Jollibee is everywhere in the populous and somewhat politically unstable nation of 7,000 islands. Two years ago, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. State Department used the prevalence of Jollibee restaurants as a measure of economic and military security in the Mindanao region, which had become a hotbed of violent, extremist activity.

Organizations with links to al-Qaida had established themselves in Mindanao, whose majority Muslim population resides mostly in poverty. As the U.S. military set out to win hearts and minds there by training Filipino troops and engaging in community development, it also paid attention to where all the Jollibee restaurants were located.

“Where you find a Jollibee, you find enough security,” a U.S. government official told the AP. “You find enough risk appetite by the private sector to begin to invest and create jobs, because ultimately, the issues in Mindanao are not just about security, but they’re also about development.”

In sheer size, McDonald’s dwarfs Jollibee. But the Filipino corporation (Jollibee Foods Corporation is the parent company) does own almost 2,000 restaurants in 11 countries, most of them in the Philippines and in Asia. Jollibee also has locations in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where many Filipino immigrants work.

In the Western world, Jollibee can be found only in the U.S. — and even here, only in five states: Hawaii, California, New York, Nevada, and Washington, where it opened its first and only store last summer in the Westfield Southcenter mall in conjunction with Seafood City, an emporium of Filipino groceries and prepared food (which we wrote about here).

Jollibee and its subsidiaries, Chowking and Red Ribbon bakery, opened up just outside Seafood City, turning that far end of the mall into Seattle’s Little Manila. (There is also another Filipino fast-food franchise in the mall, called Tokyo Tokyo, that is unaffiliated with Jollibee.)

Filipino-Americans come here with babies and with grandparents. Teens come here in groups and on dates. Between them, the four restaurants have hundreds of seats. They all serve Filipino renditions of Chinese, Japanese, and American dishes, all of which have become part of what defines Filipino cooking, a mash-up of Chinese, Malay, Spanish, and American traditions.

Jollibee serves breakfast (various forms of pork with garlic fried rice and eggs) for $4.95-$5.95, noodles, burgers, and various rotating specials, but the franchise is all about the fried chicken ($7.25 for a three-piece meal $25 for an 18-piece bucket), which seemed to be on every table in the restaurant, along with a cup of gravy that comes with the chicken. Crispy skin is the hallmark of Jollibee fried chicken. There is no extra-crispy or barbecue or spicy. Jollibee chicken comes in just one variety and is as good as any piece of fried chicken I’ve eaten anywhere.

Jollibee burgers ($1-$4.75) are much like American fast-food burgers, but slightly sweeter, owing to the seasonings and the sauce put on them. Jollibee also serves Filipino spaghetti ($4.75) which is distinctly sweet, served with melted yellow cheese and slices of hot dog in the sauce. It reminds me a little of Cincinnati-style chili, often flavored with cinnamon and served over spaghetti noodles. Better, perhaps, to go with pancit palabok ($5.75), a Filipino staple of thin noodles smothered in a shrimp-paste sauce, topped with sliced egg, shrimp and bits of smoked fish.

Jollibee also serves hamburger steak with gravy ($4.25), and lumpia ($2.25), and halo halo ($3.95), a Filipino dessert of shaved ice, evaporated milk, and sweet beans. Because Jollibee and Red Ribbon share the same storefront, you can easily order from both places, if you happened to prefer Red Ribbon’s palabok to Jollibee’s. (Cakes and pastries are Red Ribbon’s specialty.)

To be clear, Jollibee is fast food. The workers dress in crisp, pressed uniforms of blue pants and pinstriped shirts. The place uses heat lamps, and walking up to the counter feels like walking up to the counter at McDonald’s. The restaurant has a mascot — a bee wearing a red jacket and a chef’s hat — and hosts kids’ birthday parties. Jollibee has hot pies that look identical to the pies at McDonald’s, served in containers of the same shape, except they are filled with banana, jackfruit, and mango instead of apple and cherry. And like McDonald’s, Jollibee tries to sell you pies in pairs, charging $1.99 for one and $3 for two.

Eating at Jollibee is not like eating Grandma’s cooking, nor is it the most deeply authentic experience a diner can have eating Filipino food. But the experience, the shared event, is deeply Filipino. One family I talked to said they eat there several times a week, because for them and the other Filipino immigrants in the this area, Jollibee is a ritual of home they can experience thousands of miles away.

And to date, no two countries with a Jollibee franchise have ever fought each other in a war.

If you go: Jollibee, 1374 Southcenter Mall, Tukwila, 206-248-4240, Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

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