Rick Bayless, Plucky Jollibee, and Globalization

David Beriss

I receive a lot of restaurant industry email. Despite the deluge, sometimes the emails provide glimpses into the industry that I would not otherwise get. For instance, I recently received an “Eat Beat” newsletter from Restaurant Hospitality with the headline “Rick Bayless opens fast-casual Tortazo in Chicago.” Because Rick Bayless is trained as an anthropologist, but also because he has been at the center of many discussions about food, culture, authenticity, and appropriation in recent years, I decided to read the article. In turn, this pushed me toward some thoughts about how to think about globalization.

According to the article, Tortazo  focuses on tortas. Although Bayless first became famous for his high end restaurants in Chicago, he has since branched out into retail (his hot sauces are available in grocery stores) and other kinds of Mexican food-focused restaurants, both fancy and casual. Tortazo is a logical extension of this career, which you can read about here and here.

What caught my eye, however, was his partner in this new restaurant. Bayless is working with Jollibee Foods to develop these new restaurants. This is not their first endeavor together – Jollibee apparently bought 47% of another of his restaurant concepts, Tortas Frontera, back in 2018. And this is not Bayless’ first collaboration with a multinational corporation either. His company Frontera Foods, which makes, among other items, Frontera salsas, is now owned by ConAgra Brands, a multinational headquartered in Chicago.

However, it was neither Bayless nor ConAgra that really attracted me to this story. Rather, it was Jollibee. I first read about Jollibee in articles by anthropologist Ty Matejowsky. In that context, I thought of Jollibee as a plucky Philippines-based chain of fast food restaurants that resisted the onslaught of McDonald’s in its homeland. In fact, that same company has opened stores around the world, often in countries that have substantial Filipino populations (including the United States).

McDonald’s is probably the American brand most often invoked when people discuss the intersection of globalization and Americanization. George Ritzer famously developed a theory of social organization around “McDonaldization” and that concept has been extended to ideas about the spread of fast food around the world. Anthropologists have (also famously) studied the ways in which local populations around the world have made McDonald’s and other American brands their own, by reinterpreting the American model in their own cultural terms. This interaction between local cultures and global brands has been explored in other areas, including packaged ramen.

By opening their own restaurants around the world, companies like Jollibee might at first seem like the empire striking back. More than making sense of American institutions in their midst, Jollibee, McDonald’s Filipino competitor, is now showing up in McDonald’s homeland. Impressive.

Or maybe this is not exactly what it seems. Perhaps the tendency to associate these global corporations with nation-states sometimes misses other important characteristics. The same article that recounted Bayless’ new concept also pointed out that Jollibee owns the Smashburger and Coffee Bean & Tea chains. So much for plucky little Filipino upstart. Jollibee Foods Corporation is a multinational owner of many brands much like ConAgra. Is this a world of nation-states, cultures, and associated foods, or a world of multi-national corporations?

None of this is meant to criticize Rick Bayless, Jollibee, or ConAgra. But I do want to call attention to the complex realities that are often hidden behind the narratives we read. The entrepreneurial chef, the imperial American multinational, the resilient little company in the post-colonial world are all elements in the story lines we love to read about. But how real are they? In this instance, the chef is definitely real. After that, apparently, it is multinational corporations all the way down.

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Filed under anthropology, globalization

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