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Hundreds flock to Woodside for taste of Filipino fast food

Never underestimate the power of good buzz.

After getting word via the Internet, hundreds of hungry Filipinos from throughout the city flocked to Woodside Saturday for the opening of the first East Coast franchise of Jollibee, a beloved fast food chain from their native country.

Thanks to blog entries on food sites like SeriousEats.com and a profile on the social networking site Facebook, as many as 500 people lined up outside the red−and−white−paneled restaurant at 63rd Street and Roosevelt Avenue, waiting for the chance to dine on fried chicken, hamburgers and pasta.

Some also came to meet its eponymous mascot, a red cartoon bee whose popularity in the Philippines rivals that of Mickey Mouse in the United States. Among these were Yonkers resident Cora Noche, who had her 8−year−old daughter, Lowellyn, pose with the mascot for a photo.

“These people really crave it,” said Iyoh Villamayor, vice president of East Coast operations for the chain, noting the lines in Woodside were the longest she had seen at any Jollibee. “The craving is enough to drive them to wait outside in the cold just to get a bite of it.”

She estimated the branch served 2,000 people Saturday, the last of whom ate around 3 a.m. Some people had waited as long as five hours Saturday to get in, she said.

When the store opened a bit late Sunday morning, another line had begun to form.

College Point resident Ray Mandawe, a Filipino immigrant, said he arrived at 10:45 a.m. Saturday and waited about three hours to get inside Jollibee.

“I keep coming back,” he said. “There is a distinctive taste and it really is unforgettable.”

The chain prides itself on importing its gravy for Chickenjoy, its signature chicken and rice dish, from the Philippines so the flavor is the same, Villamayor said.

Although Mandawe had eaten at the chain in Los Angeles, he had not been back to his homeland in six years. “It doesn’t matter to wait long,” he said.

Jollibee is the leading fast food franchise in the Philippines, with more than 600 branches. It was started by entrepreneur Tony Tan in 1975 as a two−branch ice cream parlor offering hot meals and sandwiches. It incorporated in 1978 as its owners expanded the hot menu around hamburgers and other American−style fast food items.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.

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