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The rush is on for Jollibee, a taste of home for Filipinos living in Tampa Bay

Long lines, happy dances, hot Chickenjoy. Pinellas Park scores the chain’s latest restaurant.
People waited overnight to be the first customers at the new Jollibee Pinellas Park location. It opened Friday. [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
People waited overnight to be the first customers at the new Jollibee Pinellas Park location. It opened Friday. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]
Published Jan. 17
Updated Jan. 21

PINELLAS PARK — Kris Creque had gotten used to the pilgrimage to Jollibee in Jacksonville, the one place in Florida she wanted to go when she was homesick for the Philippines. She’d rally her family, endure five hours in the car, order six buckets of crispy Chickenjoy and 10 sides of gravy and ferry the food five hours back to Port Charlotte. Whatever she didn’t finish, she froze.

Early on Friday, the 33-year-old Publix cake decorator stood No. 138 in a line that had been building since 4:30 p.m. the day before, with a Sharpied sign that said #NOMOREDRIVINGTOJACKSONVILLE.

At 9 a.m., confetti cannons blazing, the double doors of Jollibee Pinellas Park would swing open, with the promise of Palabok Fiesta just ahead.

Creque had grown up eating Chickenjoy in the Philippines, where Jollibees dominate McDonald’s, but married an American and moved here in 2016. On Friday morning, she made it to Pinellas Park before sunrise.

First in line was Angelo Honculada, 21, a University of South Florida senior studying cellular and molecular biology. While he waited with a blanket, his Filipina mom called and asked if he was doing his principles of immunology homework. Honculada passed the phone to the stranger behind him. No. 2 Arlene Bonifacio, 54, vouched for Honculada, even though she had just met him and he kept bragging about beating her by five minutes.

Arlene Bonifacio of Tampa and Angelo Honculada of Winter Haven wait for the restaurant to open, as Ty Bui of Orlando sleeps. The group was first in line out of more than 100 people who spent the night, eager for Filipino fast food. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

Nobody got much sleep, what with the mosquitoes and anticipation and drive-through pavement for a bed. Instead, they shared McDonald’s snacks, camp chairs and blankets. By morning, a DJ had arrived, spinning Justin Bieber as Jollibee videographers roved the line’s edges, taking in the homemade signs with glitter stick-ons and mini Philippine flags.

Near the front, Pinellas Park resident Melinda Schramm, 42, held her green No. 10 ticket along with her order form (2 Yumburgers, 1 Palabok, 6-pc. Bucket, plenty of rice). She moved to the U.S. 10 years ago from Manila after meeting her husband online. She, too, has caravaned to Jacksonville for Jollibee. Thursday night, she and her Filipina friends played cards and dreamed of Peach-Mango Pies and her favorite, peppery, garlicky adobo rice.

Schramm posed for photos, hunger building. Those first few years had been so hard, she said. She still remembers the first time she ate Jollibee stateside. It was Seattle, 2013, and she ordered more than she could possibly eat.

“It tasted like home,” she said, “like home.”

***

The day before, to inaugurate Florida’s second Jollibee, the chain invited a roster of local VIPs for a morning of jolly fanfare. Pinellas Park city staffers mingled, sipping free Pineapple Quenchers, while a remix of Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow pulsed in the spotless, blond wood interior.

There were traditions to uphold: A reverend, in a humble brown cassock, crossed himself before speaking of the dignity of labor. While friers sizzled, Jollibee executives read from Genesis and led a responsorial psalm, the crowd echoing: “Lord, give success to the work of our hands.” The VIPs held red votive candles while Father Vijaya walked the kitchen, sprinkling its every corner with holy water.

They tossed lucky coins and candies to bless the space. There were speeches about Jollibee’s humble beginnings, two ice cream parlors in the Philippines opened by a new college graduate trying to feed his family. Beth Dela Cruz, president of Jollibee Foods Corporation North America, Philippine Brands Group, cited stats that show the fast-food chain’s seemingly indomitable, global growth, but admitted even she is sometimes surprised by the fervor.

In Canada and Arizona, people have camped out for days in punishing temperatures. Fans have burned gas driving across state lines. The menu is relatively small, a billboard of reliable favorites, mass-market comfort. At Jollibee, the ice cream flavor is ube, purple yam. Spaghetti is sweet, and Burger Steaks come with rice.

Jollibee's second Florida location features the chain's standard fare. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

Jacksonville’s Jollibee saw 3,000 customers on opening day in 2017, when it became the first in the Southeast. Placards on the door there still warn, years later, that pricey orders might take extra time.

This Jollibee hired its manager from Jacksonville, Dela Cruz said, and sent some newly minted employees to train there, so they’d be ready.

Jollibee landed in Pinellas Park after pleas from Tampa Bay area Filipinos, who number 22,000, with 4,000 in Pinellas Park alone. Plus, Dela Cruz said, the corporation keyed in on blogs that boasted Pinellas Park’s diverse, affordable food scene as a “best-kept secret.”

For months, eager fans had been driving by, posting forlorn photos of the empty building on Facebook pages like Pilipino Sa Tampa Bay, speculating about opening dates. As Friday approached, one fan wrote, isang tulog nalang — only one more sleep.

The opening marked the 40th Jollibee in the U.S., with goals for 150 by 2023.

“We can’t do a champagne toast in here,” Dela Cruz said Thursday, so out of the kitchen came a monster, waist-high bucket of Chickenjoy on wheels, still hot to the touch. She plucked a drumstick and held it up for a cheers.

***

Basking in the spotlight, first-place Honculada sounded like a Jollibee spokesman himself on Friday, praising the mascot for being hardworking, happy and sweet — like his beloved sugary, hot-dog-studded Jolly Spaghetti, the first food he ate after getting his wisdom teeth out.

In a red and blue jacket embroidered with a map of the Philippines, he danced without reservation, dropping to the sidewalk to perform a stiff worm.

“Have a nice day,” he said to reporters, shaking hands. “Stay jolly.”

“We’re less than 10 minutes out,” the emcee shouted.

“It’s our turn!” yelled a fan.

The people with the best 50 signs would get a mini Jollibee doll wearing a traditional Filipino barong, a formal shirt. The first 50 in line would get free Chickenjoy for a year.

“That’s a bucket every month, folks!” the emcee yelled.

People who brought the best signs won Jollibee dolls, and the first 50 customers won free Chickenjoy for a year. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

Finally 9 a.m. neared, and the dancing bee burst out, Jollibee himself, bouncing to the chirpy theme song. His eyes blinked, and he wiggled his striped bum to the words: “I’m your friend! Jollibee! Jolly, friendly Jollibee!”

Melinda Schramm wiped the corners of her eyes. The cannons fired, and a hot breeze blew eddies of red-and-white confetti around the fans’ feet. The first customers bounded inside, while Schramm and her friends were held back.

“Oh my god, he’s coming!” Schramm squealed as Jollibee neared and All I Do Is Win blared from the speakers.

An 8-year-old held his own in a dance-off with the mascot.

Melinda Schramm of Pinellas Park planned to have lunch and dinner at the new restaurant. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

The wait stretched on, 15 minutes feeling like hours. Finally, No. 10 got the all-clear. Schramm scrambled inside, waving, “Hi, hello!” at the cashiers, high-fiving one of her friends.

“Have a jolly day!” the cashier said, ringing Schramm up for $48.64. She took her receipt, then paused. Her friends stood waiting with bags to go. Her shoulders sank a little as she realized they didn’t plan to slide into a red booth and dig in. Well, she already had plans to come back with more friends for a 7 p.m. Jolly Spaghetti dinner. She made a phone call.

Twenty minutes later, another friend pulled into the crowded lot. Irene Rutter, a fellow Filipina, had wanted to stand in line, but she’s three months pregnant and had worked late. The music was still pulsing, lunchtime traffic rushing by, but Rutter’s smile was tired and soft. Schramm handed her a sack heavy with palabok, burgers, peach-mango pies and small cups of rice. It was still warm.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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