There is a picture of me and a monkey from sometime in 1990, sitting in front of the first McDonald’s ever opened in Russia. Over my shoulder, you can see the metal barricades that had to be erected in the restaurant’s first months to control the tens of thousands of people who lined up for a Big Mac and fries.
On May 16, McDonald’s said it will exit Russia after more than 30 years of operation in the country. The fast-food chain was one of the first Western brands to set up shop in Russia, just before the fall of the Soviet Union.
It wasn’t until I studied the Cold War at university that I understood that a McDonald’s opening in Pushkin Square symbolized one of the earliest fissures in the Iron Curtain. At a time when people were still lining up for bread and medicine, the golden arches were a shiny, branded beacon of economic possibility.
Before the market reforms known as “shock therapy” that ushered in the rise of Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs, and before any other Western chain expanded into this new market, a group of young Russians scrambled to bring a capitalist dream to life. My dad was one of them.
In 1989, McDonald’s had nearly 1,000 restaurants across Europe but none in the Soviet Union. Expansion into Russia was a dream of Canadian millionaire George Cohon, the chairperson of McDonald’s Canada. He saw it as the ultimate sign of warming relations with the Soviet bloc following the Cold War. It was also a potentially lucrative and untouched market.
My dad became one of the first managers McDonald’s hired in the former Soviet Union through a combination of hustle and luck. He was studying food management at university when he heard through word-of-mouth that McDonald’s was looking for workers. After reading a book of McDonald’s lore and learning how many tons of potatoes the fast-food giant used in an average week, he passed the interview and began work in the spring of 1989, at the age of 25.
Along with nearly 200 managers from Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia, Canada and the U.S., he helped locate suppliers, establish supply chains, find and train staff, and track finances. This made him one of the thousands of “green berets of Russian capitalism, standing on the front lines of the war for economic freedom,” as House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt later described McDonald’s employees in Moscow.
They had just over a year to get it all done. The first few months were spent learning English, followed by intensive lessons on running a restaurant. It also included all-expenses-paid trips to Canada that included studying “Hamburgerology” and a Celine Dion performance.
It also included the kind of pay that afforded us a new washer-dryer and clothing branded with OshKosh and Mickey Mouse that he would bring back from his trips for my brother and me. My father later remarked how shocking it was to find a bowl of apples in the lobby of a Canadian hotel, free for anyone to take. It was a vision of abundance.
There were major logistical challenges. Nearly all of the restaurant’s food and packaging supplies were locally sourced. That meant dealing with the Soviet-era systems. A plant that was supposed to supply goods like patties, apple pies and ketchup still didn’t have electricity a few months before the opening. Soldiers were recruited to dig trenches for power lines.
Food quality was another issue. On a visit to a local farm with a team of Canadian food scientists, one of them opened a barrel of pickles to test their salinity with a probe. Suddenly from around the corner an old Russian woman scurried over with a broom. “Get your dirty machines away from my pickles!” she shouted.
Russian cattle were too lean to meet the McDonald’s fat content requirement. So the team had to get creative, and ended up importing fat from Germany to mix into the ground beef.
Any road bumps in the integration of the Western-style approach with Soviet-era systems were smoothed over with vodka and team outings. They had a blank check — Cohon and McDonald’s Canada essentially said, “Do whatever you need to make this work.” That meant going out to restaurants four nights a week for team building.
My dad and other managers ran around each week to supply the restaurants with food or cash because even longstanding restaurants lacked a consistent supply of raw ingredients. There was a great deal of trust among staff, and they all had the same mindset: They weren’t there to build empires. They were there to collaborate to get something off the ground.
Once the restaurant opened, though, people started leaving. Despite higher wages at McDonald’s and the excitement, staff turnover became a problem. Several managers were later poached by other Western chains making their way into Russia.
The issue was also cultural. In 1990, McDonald’s was rolling out its “service with a smile” campaign across U.S. stores. It’s not that Russians don’t smile, but too much smiling is seen as a sign of stupidity. The initial cultural clash required one to two staff each day dedicated to walking around the restaurant showing people how to eat a hamburger. Customers wondered why there weren’t tablecloths in the massive restaurant.
Still, the experiment was a success. Russians came clamoring for a taste of America and a glimmer of the life of opportunity and freedom they imagined.
“The biggest thing for Russian people, it’s not the food they’re eating. It’s the feeling of America,” my father said recently. “It was never about the food.”
Despite the feeling of hope, the political and economic landscape in Russia remained volatile. About a year and a half after the photo of me in Pushkin Square was taken, tanks filled the streets in Moscow amid a coup attempt.
My dad continued working for McDonald’s into the early ’90s, eventually moving our family to Ontario to escape the increasing uncertainty and violence. Each time we drove past the corporate office near downtown Toronto, he would joke, “Look. That’s where it all started.”