Miguel Syjuco is author of the novel Ilustrado. He lives in Manila and is a professor at NYU's new campus in Abu Dhabi.
Late at night on the Sheikh Khalifa Highway, in the desert around Abu Dhabi, endless columns of construction trucks crawl – signs of prosperity and growth. Inside a gas station along the way, a surprising Tim Hortons sits in bright lights. I made my way there one hot January evening, hoping for a sour cream glazed doughnut and a box of Timbits.
I don't know if I went because of my indelible Montreal years, or because of my typically Filipino sweet tooth and discerning taste for fried dough. But I do know it was comforting to see that sign, in both Arabic script and the familiar red-on-white signature.
That Middle Eastern branch lacked the slush and salt on the floor, or the bums nursing double-doubles by the heat vents, or the retirees playing checkers and bitching in franglais about the Habs. But I was not all surprised to see a fellow Filipino behind the counter; more than 700,000 of us work in the Emirates. I asked him in Tagalog what he thought of Tim's doughnuts. "They're so good," he said – "someone should bring them to the Philippines."
That will happen soon enough. Restaurant Brands International Inc., the holding firm of Tim Hortons, recently announced a master franchise joint venture with a group of Filipino investors.
It makes sense. The market is large – more than 100 million people, half under 23 – and the time is right. The Philippine economy is booming, with an annualized GDP growth rate of 6.9 per cent in the first quarter of this year, highest in Southeast Asia.
That's a crest on a wave that's long been building. Thanks to relative political stability over the past decade, and increased foreign and local investment, the Philippine middle class has grown, consumption has increased, credit cards have become widely embraced and fewer workers have had to go abroad. Just 9.4 million Filipinos now work overseas, down from 10.4 million in 2011.
Tim Hortons is also a good cultural fit. Filipinos share a sweet tooth and a love of new things, embedded, perhaps, during colonial times, when the archipelago first became an entrepôt for trade and culture. One of the first linchpins of globalization, it connected its neighbours in Asia (then linked East) with the West through the Spanish empire's Acapulco-Manila galleon trade, and eventually served as both resource and market for the United States' nascent imperial ambitions.
The roots of tribal community and importance of family life informed our famous Filipino hospitality, while European influence bequeathed a deep tradition of baked goods and the United States brought a proliferation of junk food, ice cream and soft drinks.
My own family's business for three generations was in the latter, and conventional wisdom holds that in times of economic lows and poverty, Filipinos spend more on three affordable indulgences: beverages, beauty parlours and sweets. But in good times like these, that may still hold true: A recent poll showed that the first thing many Filipino workers do with fresh paycheques is treat loved ones to a meal out.
Indeed, a cursory look at the capital, Metro Manila, seems to confirm that. After quitting time on any payday, the infamous traffic up and down EDSA Boulevard (the main thoroughfare, connecting a population of nearly 13 million) is far more gridlocked than usual. Wherever you turn your head, towering billboards of brands from across the world compete with those of local businesses, which thrive against outside competition by relying on the typical Filipino flair for creativity and enterprise.
Beyond those billboards, the skyline bristles with cranes, high-rises and repetitive residential developments intended for newly moneyed yuppies or newly returned retirees. While the economic benefits have yet to be spread sufficiently to the millions of Filipinos who are still poor, the consumption-driven economy is clearly on a roll.
Most significantly, the tropical heat, pollution and overpopulation have created an inescapable mall culture where sprawling shopping centres have replaced parks and plazas. Not only do malls offer religious services, live music, movies, games, skating rinks, promenades for walkers and safe spaces where children can play, they are also filled with the greatest variety of retail and restaurant outlets you will see anywhere.
Brands that are extinct or forgotten elsewhere still thrive in these spaces. Remember Kenny Rogers Roasters? Shakey's pizza? Mister Donut? They've found happy footholds in the Philippines. The new brands also make outsized waves: TGI Friday's, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, the Halal Guys, Ippudo ramen, the Parisian patisserie Ladurée, Pink's Hot Dogs, Taiwanese dim-sum chain Din Tai Fung, even local knock-offs of New York chef Dominique Ansel's Cronut. Filipinos queued for hours to grab these new sensations. (The rich often sent their drivers or nannies in their stead.)
All this bodes well for Tim Hortons and its doughnuts. But competition will be fierce alongside Krispy Kreme, Mister Donut, the Indonesian franchise J.CO and long-time local institution Dunkin' Donuts. And there will also remain the sobering reminder of many international brands that died slowly here: Haagen Dazs, Carl's Jr., A&W, Church's Chicken, Arby's, Little Caesars, Pillsbury, Orange Julius, PF Chang's. Even some of the giants, such as Taco Bell and Burger King, have had surprising difficulty in the Philippines.
Nonetheless, the new Tim Hortons venture is undoubtedly a bold step into Asia for the Canadian company, bringing together two countries that are undeniably coming up in the world. Canada is increasingly seen as a global bastion for stability, liberalism and tolerance. And in a food market long dominated by U.S. franchises, the Philippines is an opportunity for a Canadian brand to show how much better it can do things.
Personally, I'm just stoked to soon be getting a sour cream glazed in Manila. Oh, Canada, I stand on guard for thee.