The food scientist who helped fill Filipinos with ‘joy’
Maria Lourdes Santos did not invent the iconic Jollibee Chicken Joy, which has captured the palates not just of Filipinos but people in those countries where the giant food franchise has established itself.
But the millions of Jollibee patrons, who have found true joy in the Jollibee chicken, have Santos to thank for making sure that the dish they love is always available and its quality consistent.
They also have to credit Santos, a bachelor of science in biology (major in food microbiology) graduate of the University of the Philippines (UP), for the mango and peach pie, as well as the other variant, banana-langka, which is also a consistent Jollibee bestseller.
For these and other accomplishments in food research and development that have influenced Filipino food choices, Santos will be recognized with the Mariang Maya award by her sorority, Sigma Delta Phi, during its 90th anniversary gala night on Feb. 25 at the Bahay ng Alumni, UP Diliman, Quezon City.
Recipients of the 9th Mariang Maya Award, which will highlight the anniversary celebration, include Philippine Daily Inquirer’s former art director, Emelyn Advincula-Villariba, a UP fine arts graduate, major in editorial design, for outstanding achievement in visual journalism.
Santos joined Jollibee after American hamburger chain McDonald’s opened its first store in the Philippines. The homegrown fast-food chain decided it was time to strengthen its operations to compete more effectively and efficiently with the foreign company that had become known globally.
Santos, who had worked for local and multinational food brands, was given the task of setting up the first Jollibee Food Laboratory on Pasong Tamo Extension, Makati City, when she joined the company in 1982.
“Jollibee thought it was time to create the formal research and development (now research and duplicate) unit,” she recalls. The chain, which started in 1975 selling ice cream, had expanded its product offerings to include burger, spaghetti and palabok. In 1980, it developed the recipe for the iconic Chicken Joy.
Santos says the Tan family—Jollibee founder Tony Tan Caktiong, Ernesto Tanmantiong and William Tan Untiong—are absolute “foodies.” “They know their trade well. Their taste buds are very discriminating; they have refined taste. They know what is good and what is not good enough,” she adds.
With the Chicken Joy recipe already set before she joined, Santos says her contribution to the development and product improvement was in the sourcing of the chicken, making sure that the chicken requirements were met. This involved setting product specification, selection of chicken breed, processing, standardization of cut pieces, marinating method with flavors and spices, among others.
She says Jollibee had to improve its chicken supply chain to grow its business at the time. “[And while] recipe is important in product development, continuous improvement is just as important.”
Putting the systems in place
Santos, who moved to New Zealand in 1996, had to help work out the logistics to ensure that the chicken would deliver the joy it promised on demand: what equipment could be used to cook this product and how to maintain the quality until it was consumed; how to speed up service; what ingredients could keep the chicken crispy; what process could make the chicken juicy; how big chicken cuts should be; how they could stay crispy outside, juicy inside; how quality could be reproduced and maintained in all stores. “I realized that even if you have the best recipe, [without] the system and procedure in place and the right equipment, [the product would] not be good enough,” she says.
But Santos says what really made Chicken Joy a popular and beloved product, was the solid business behind Jollibee and the people who ensured quality and consistency in their product every time.
“The secret ingredient behind Jollibee Chicken Joy is [the company’s] passion for excellence,” she stresses.
Before she left the company in 1986, Santos also presided over the development of other products that have since become staples on Jollibee’s menu.
Santos says her immediate boss, Ramon Tapales, who hired her to head the food chain’s research and development unit, was clear that he had intended Jollibee to respond to McDonald’s offerings and to create products that Filipinos would love.
He suggested the pies that would be the Pinoy version of apple pie.
Peach was combined with mango to give texture and add body. But the local fruit became soggy when cooked in syrup. The result was an East-meets-West product, she says.
Santos was also asked to create Filipino breakfast, offering diners a choice among tapa, tocino and longganisa. They were Jollibee’s answer to McDonald’s Sausage McMuffins and Egg.
The 2023 Mariang Maya awardee, who now works for Zymus International in New Zealand and Australia, is eager to put her advocacy “to pay forward” into practice among fellow Filipinos. “I’d be more than happy to assist our Filipino food science and technology or food industry—mentoring students or as a consultant to local food industry,” she declares.
The Mariang Maya Award was first given in 1983 when Sigma Delta Phi Sorority marked its 50th year. It celebrates and honors outstanding sorority members and aims to inspire integrity, credibility and full personal development.
The other awardees for 2023 are Marlene Paje-Rodriguez, for public administration; Virginia Honrado-Benavidez, diplomacy and international relations; Linda Luz Bacungan-Guerrero, social research; Annie Gerona Dee, business and entrepreneurship; Ma. Elizabeth Santiago-Sichon, human resources development; and Frances Rivera, broadcast communication. —contributed