In multi-ethnic Queens, fast food joints reach overseas for cuisine
Fast food doesn't always have to mean greasy burgers and fries.
In Queens, a sampling of food to go can take you on a culinary trip around the globe - from Filipino noodles and specialty sandwiches from California to Korean fried chicken.
The borough is fast becoming a hotbed of unusual franchises because of its ethnic diversity, which appeals to chains trying to gain a foothold in New York City.
"We decided to start in Queens to build our brand recognition," said Bev Rich, senior director of franchise development at Wingstop, a chain that sells specialty chicken wings.
Wingstop has 435 restaurants around the country, and its first in New York is set to open in Astoria this spring. The local franchisee, Mac Khahera, is a native of Queens.
"If there's a specific niche or type of people you're trying to focus on, you can definitely find it in Queens," he said.
The borough's diversity and its array of ethnic enclaves also makes Queens a prime destination for international fast-food chains trying to break into the U.S. market.
Jollibee, a Filipino fast-food restaurant, made a splash in Queens last February when it opened its first East Coast location in Woodside.
"There is a big concentration of Filipinos, and they're the ones who know the chain," said Maria Lourdes Villamayor, the company's vice president of East Coast Operations. "It's like a second home to them."
About 90% of Jollibee's customers are Filipino, but their signature dish, Chickenjoy, is bringing in a more diverse crowd than Villamayor initially expected.
"It's about the taste," Ziggy Cancio, who was recently in town on business from Westchester County, said as he finished a plate of Jollibee's fried chicken and noodles. "We got used to eating this sauce in the Philippines."
The restaurant's success has Villamayor combing the borough for other potential locations.
On Jan. 8, the company opened Red Ribbon Bake Shop down the block - a popular Filipino bakery that serves dishes such as mango cakes and empanadas.
"Red Ribbon has the best imports from the Philippines," said Glen Alagasi, 38, of
Woodside, at the restaurant's grand opening. "I missed this food."
Jonathan Dizon, a Filipino real estate broker in Woodside, said it is only natural for international food chains to start in a place where there is a high concentration of customers who know their product well.
"It's a piece of home," Dizon said. "And when you see something from home, you try it."
Unidentified Flying Chickens, a Korean fried chicken chain, opened in Jackson Heights in 2007. Owner Young Jin said he chose the location to find out who favored his product.
"This is probably the most diverse area in Queens," Jin said. "It was a test market."
Even though UFC chicken has a distinctly Korean flair - often served with a soy-garlic sauce and a side of pickled radishes - Jin wanted to expand its niche.
"Our customers are Hispanic, Chinese, Indian and Filipino," he said. "And 15% are Korean."
B.K. Sinha, who develops franchises in the New York area for Submarina California Subs, has the same goal for his restaurant - the first New York branch of the West Coast-based sandwich shop.
He decided Astoria would be the perfect place to introduce Submarina to the city when it opens Thursday.
"Every ethnic group is there [in Queens] and that gets you word of mouth," he said.
"And that is an effective tool in marketing."