Sunday, February 15, 2009

My First NY Times Byline

My first byline in the NY Times appeared today. You can get to it by following this link.

Jollibee is a Filipino fast food chain which just opened its first East Coast location in Woodside, Queens. Given how I feel about chains, how I feel about food, and how I feel about chains that serve food, I can't say this was the kind of story I imagined myself writing. But given how I feel about neighborhoods, community folkways, touchstones from other cultures and how they that get translated by immigrants when they come to New York, this is exactly the kinds of story I imagined myself writing.

Here's a bit of the backstory.

The piece was filed on Friday in time to appear in today's Times. But the grand opening was scheduled for yesterday, Valentine's Day, at 7AM. I heard from a few folks in the community that there'd probably be a line by then. For fried chicken, burgers, and spaghetti in sweet sauce. That is to say, not for typical 7AM food.

I got there about 6:45a and started taking some tape for a separate radio piece. A few guys at the front of the line had been there since 2:30 AM. The next few folks arrived a little after 5 AM. Now there were 50 or so people waiting on line. The queue ran around the corner and partway down the side street.

Some last minute repairs were being done on the front door by workers. Every time it swung open for an adjustment, the closest dozen or so let up a big cheer. The unmistakable scent of fried chicken wafted out.

Finally, at 7:15, the Jollibee mascot appeared from behind the counter and came to unlock the front door to officially open the store and greet customers as they rushed by to the counter at the far end of the store. I got swept up in the wave at the front of the crowd. I managed to get a tape of some of the first orders being placed. Quickly, a separate line formed at each of the 4 cash registers. They ran 7 or 8 deep. Because of a snafu with the phone company, the computerized registers lacked a connection to the Internet. Orders were taken by hand on pads and tabulated on pocket calculators and iPhones. There was a bustle, but everyone was orderly and polite. And soon enough, boxes of Chicken joy and wrapped Yumburgers were being handed over the counter.

From what I have gathered in speaking with a couple of dozen customers and members of the community in the past few weeks, there is remarkable pride among Filipinos about Jollibee. Sure, they love the taste of comfort food that reminds them of the chain back home that many of them grew up with. But there seems to be much more pride about the chain's economic success. Comparisons to the Korean chain Pinkberry were mentioned a couple of times. Got some good quotes around that. More to come, I hope!

And here are some pics that were snapped by folks there on Saturday: