Asia’s largest restaurant company by market capitalization prepared Friday for its Saturday grand opening in Jacksonville with candles, prayers, blessings, a traditional coin toss and a song-and-dance by its mascot.
Jollibee Foods Corp. also rolled out a big bucket of Chickenjoy, its signature menu item, for guests to photograph at its Florida flagship fast-food restaurant at southwest Atlantic and Kernan boulevards.
Taste-testing ensued from smaller buckets of fried chicken passed around the crowd for the “Chickenjoy toast” and later at the buffet line.
“It’s about time. It’s a long wait,” said Dr. Mel Carbonell, a physician and the president of the Filipino-American Community Council of Northeast Florida.
“Jollibee represents the Philippines,” he said.
On Saturday morning, about 150 customers lined up by the 7 a.m. opening, with Westside resident Helen De Nardis at the front of the line with her daughter, son and grandson.
“We want to be part of history,” she said.
De Nardis moved from the Philippines to Chicago and then Jacksonville.
The family set up near the front door at 2 a.m., she said. “We’ll be here a lot. I don’t mind driving.”
Jollibee said 3,000 customers came through on opening day.
The restaurant is the largest fast-food chain brand in the Philippines, where it operates more than 950 stores.
Along with its other brands, Jollibee Foods Corp. operates more than 3,000 stores globally.
Jose Minana, Jollibee Foods Group President for North America, and Maribeth dela Cruz, vice president and general manager of JFC North America, both said the company chose Jacksonville for its Southeast expansion because of the Filipino population in the city and the state.
They said the company’s goal was to operate in the top 10 states with the largest Filipino-American populations and, with Florida No. 9, they have achieved their goal.
Minana said in an interview that 26,000 Filipino-Americans live in metropolitan Jacksonville, which is a large representation of the population of 125,000 in Florida.
He said the Jacksonville restaurant is Jollibee’s 36th in the country and is the start of what is expected to be an expansion in Florida and in the Southeast.
Minana also said there could be more in Jacksonville.
“After this, we are going to be looking at other cities,” he said, but couldn’t say where. “Hopefully we will have the opportunity to open a lot more.”
The location at 11884 Atlantic Blvd., next to Soul Food Bistro, is a former KFC and A&W that was converted into a Jollibee.
The restaurant had been expected to open before now, but Minana referred to renovation requirements and said “we had to work with what we have.”
Fully renovated, the restaurant seats 80 inside and 30 on the patio, Dela Cruz said.
While 86 crew members have been hired, Jollibee seeks 44 more because it needs a staff of 130, especially during the early weeks when business is expected to be heavy.
Based on other openings, Jollibee executives believe the Jacksonville store will attract Filipino-Americans and other customers from throughout the Southeast, naming South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia specifically.
Hours are 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
In addition to Chickenjoy, the menu includes chicken dippers, sweet-style Jolly Spaghetti, burgers, Spam sandwiches and desserts.
Minana said while the chain sells breakfast, the Jacksonville location will wait a few weeks before rolling out that and a few other items.
But the restaurant still will open for breakfast hours in the meantime.
“We’ll have spaghetti and Chickenjoy at 7,” Minana said.