By Jennee Grace U. Rubrico

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — In one of the most densely populated residential areas of Brunei, a Jollibee drive-through outlet is being built that is poised to cement the red-and-yellow bee’s position on the top of the sultanate’s food service industry heap.

Standing next to a gasoline station and just across the road from the newest McDonald’s branch in the country, the soon-to-open outlet in Lambak — population, approximately 30,000 — will be Jollibee’s 18th.

Jollibee holds the distinction of being the biggest food franchise in the sultanate in terms of store count alongside US fastfood rival KFC. The Filipino brand, which is managed by Entrek (B) Sdn Bhd, and KFC currently have 17 outlets each in Brunei.

Not to be outdone, KFC is also building an 18th outlet in a different location, and the race for having the most restaurants in the sultanate continues.

Pizza Hut, on its part, has 15 outlets, McDonald’s has three, while Burger King lists seven.

Quick service restaurant Ayamku, Brunei’s answer to Jollibee and the most popular locally owned fastfood chain, has 14 stores around the country.

Jollibee’s 1987 foray into the Southeast Asian petrostate — population, 421,000 — marked the beginning of the brand’s international expansion.

More than three decades on, Jollibee’s operations in the country are supported not only by the 20,000-strong Filipinos who live here but also by locals who know it as the “home of the famous Chickenjoy.”

“[It’s] good food at a good price. You can get a piece of chicken, rice and a drink, which to me is a full meal, for just under B$4 ($2.98),” said Redzwan Kamarudin, a local who said he drops by Jollibee for takeout twice or thrice a week, or whenever he feels “lazy to think of what to have for lunch and dinner.”

He also said having a Jollibee branch that is always within reach, as well as the perception that Jollibee food is not as unhealthy as the offerings of other quick service restaurants, adds to the brand’s popularity.

“Compared to the rest, they’re kind of a relatively healthier option” because of the rice meals, he said.

Jollibee’s bestsellers in the sultanate are the trademarked Chickenjoy fried chicken, which comes in the regular and spicy variants, Jolly Spaghetti, and the recently introduced Nasi Lemak Chickenjoy, a made-for-Brunei fried chicken-and-rice dish served with sides of hard-boiled egg, anchovies and sambal (a spicy paste).

“We’ve seen the demand for our famous Chickenjoy grow and how people in Brunei are truly enjoying other Jollibee favorites,” the restaurant said in response to questions sent by BusinessWorld via e-mail.

The fastfood chain’s service also draws in the crowds.

“Service is consistently efficient — rarely do I have to wait for more than 10 minutes for my orders,” Mr. Kamarudin noted.

Rudolf Portillo, a Filipino photographer in Brunei who came to the country in 1995 as a Jollibee employee, said that the fastfood chain brought its brand of human resource training to the sultanate when it came over.

Noong time namin or earlier, majority Pinoy kami at lahat kami talagang galing ng Jollibee Philippines, kaya baon talaga namin ang training. Tapos, established na ang ganoong service dito until now (During our time, or earlier, majority of us were Pinoys, and we were all from Jollibee Philippines, so we brought with us our training. And then, that kind of service has been established here until now),” he said.

Mr. Portillo said that even then, the fastfood chain was already popular among Bruneians.

Jollibee, on its part, attributes its success in the Muslim country to understanding the market. “We understand that the very core of the Bruneian values is the importance of family. By providing great tasting food like our Chickenjoy at affordable prices served with friendly warmth, we see families come together over Jollibee meals. This has made Jollibee the Number One family fastfood chain in Brunei,” the restaurant said.

It added that it makes sure it meets all the regulatory requirements of Brunei, particularly that of halal certification.

In what some consider an already saturated market and given the economic slump that Brunei has been grappling with over the last four years, many food companies have opted to put expansion on hold, and some have even closed shop. Jollibee, however, has yet to show signs of slowing down in its oldest overseas location.

It was only last January when Jollibee flung open the doors of its 17th branch — located in a newly inaugurated shopping center — to much fanfare. Mascots were brought in, and queue-forming promotions were held. Coupons and discount vouchers were distributed days in advance.

“We will continue to open more stores in Brunei as we see potential for more growth. The locations of our stores are determined by different factors, which are proprietary to us,” Jollibee said.

“Jollibee is all about sharing the joy and through our products, we would like for this to continue here in Brunei.”