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Jollibee founder and Chairman Tony Tan Caktiong aims to turn the Philippine chain into a top five global player. (Photo by Keiicihro Asahara)
Cover Story

How Jollibee's founder is building a fast-food empire

Chairman Tony Tan Caktiong lets his experience -- and taste buds -- guide him

MANILA -- When Jollibee decided to shift from ice cream to hamburgers in the late 1970s, founder Tony Tan Caktiong and wife Grace did their homework. The couple sampled as many different burgers as they could find in Manila to get a taste of what was being offered on the market.

As Jollibee chairman, Tan does the same sort of surveying today, only on a much wider stage.

In recent years, the man behind the Philippines' most popular fast-food chain has spent most of his time overseas, sampling everything from dim sum to tacos as he seeks to realize his dream of transforming Jollibee into a global restaurant empire.

"We tend to go around and keep on eating, visiting and eating, and say, 'Oh, this is good,'" Tan told reporters in late June, just before his flight to Hong Kong and China, which he regards as a pillar of Jollibee's global growth. When he finds something he likes, he asks investment bankers or common suppliers to link him with potential targets.

In his hunt for what to buy next, Tan is armed with three things: a $1 billion war chest for acquisitions, deep exposure in the restaurant business and his own taste buds.

Tan was born to immigrant parents from China's Fujian Province. His father worked as a cook at a Buddhist monastery in Manila before opening a restaurant in Davao, in the southern Philippines.

This gave the young Tan an up-close look at how a restaurant is managed. He also has an inherent appreciation of good food.

"My mother would say I was the most difficult to bring up because I was the choosiest in terms of taste, whereas my brothers would just eat anything," the third of seven children told Forbes in 2013.

It was after college that he put those abilities to work. In 1975, Tan and his wife opened twin Magnolia ice cream franchises in Metro Manila, offering bigger scoops to beat the competition. Filipinos, however, like to eat something hot before eating something cold, which led the couple to offer sandwiches and later burgers.

Three years later, they introduced the Yumburger hamburger, which became a blockbuster hit and inspired them to expand Jollibee's menu to include fried chicken and pasta, and other local Filipino dishes.

Jollibee has been able to fend of competition from McDonald's in its home market despite the latter's bigger global presence. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

Tan once told his associates that he aspired to create the largest food company in the world. "That was when we had just five stores! Some people laughed when they heard it, but I wasn't joking," he recalled at a speaking engagement in 2005.

His determination was tested when McDonald's arrived in the Philippines in 1981. "Many of my well-intentioned friends advised us to sell out while we were still good," Tan recalled in a speech in 2013, without naming the American chain. "After all, how could a small Filipino company in the Philippines with five stores take on a leading multinational in a business they have practically invented -- the hamburger?"

Tan would later joke that had he followed his friends' advice, he "would be flipping burgers for you know who."

Tan introduced Jollibee's now-iconic red bee mascot in 1980, boosting the brand and captivating Filipino children, who begged their parents to have their birthday parties at Jollibee.

Kristelle Batchelor was one of those kids. Sitting in a branch in the New York borough of Queens, she said visiting Jollibee's overseas branches helps fight homesickness. "I love being surrounded by fellow Filipinos," said the 23-year-old flight attendant who now lives in New York. "And the smell of the shop is reminiscent of my childhood."

The Jollibee brand has become so iconic that late chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain visited a branch when he filmed a show in the Philippines in 2016, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau charmed Filipinos and sidelined activists protesting against the shipment of Canadian garbage into the country when he visited a Jollibee store in Manila last year.

Years ago, Tan was asked why he chose a bee as Jollibee's emblem. He said the insect represented Filipinos' traits of being hardworking, optimistic and jolly -- pretty much like himself.

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