You deserve a borscht today

Over a Big Mac and fries, the man who brought McDonald's to Russia discusses burgers, communism and Boris Yeltsin's craving for salt.

Topics: Canada, Soviet Union, Russia,

Pravda once declared George Cohon “The Hero of Capitalist Labor.” It’s an odd appellation, combining Marxist rhetoric with abstract mythology, but if you happen to be a fan of global capitalism, it’s a suitable paean to the man responsible for bringing McDonald’s to Russia.

It takes no small amount of chutzpah to march into the “Evil Empire,” with the Golden Arches emblazoned on your business card and preach the gospel of one of capitalism’s greatest success stories to hard-line Soviet leaders. But it’s clear from the moment you meet him that he’s the embodiment of chutzpah. He’s always smiling, always talking, always oozing enthusiasm. He sucks up the attention of anyone near him. It’s not necessarily a bad quality. In the world of corporate dealmaking that’s more about schmooze than number-crunching, a smile you can’t say no to and a personality you can’t ignore are winning assets.

Our meeting place was the McDonald’s in New York City’s Rockefeller Center. When I walked up and introduced myself, he was standing near the service counter showing off his Technicolor McDonald’s logo tie to a man and a woman in suits. Smiling broadly, he thrust out his hand and said, “Great to meet you! Let’s have lunch!”

Every McDonald’s is a variation on a theme. The golden arches, the neatly wrapped Big Mac and fries glistening in red cardboard packages, the pimply faced employees: These are generally the same wherever you go. This is the genius of McDonald’s: A Big Mac always tastes like a Big Mac, even though in Russia they may also serve borscht. The McDonald’s closest to my home in Oakland, Calif., is a dingy, ominous-looking shack. The McDonald’s in Rockefeller Center is hyper-clean, neon-lit and cavernous enough to seat more than 100. Joined by his two companions (Irwin Kruger, owner of several McDonald’s in Manhattan, including this one, and Maurren Kitts, director of communications for McDonald’s Canada), Cohon and I settle into a corner of the restaurant to talk about his new book on bringing the McDonald’s franchise to what was then the crumbling Soviet Union, “To Russia With Fries.”

But before I can get started, Cohon wants to give me a present. It’s a travel alarm clock that wakes you with the sound of your own voice. He demonstrates how to record a message. “That’s neat, isn’t it? It’s yours.” Nobody’s given me a clock before. I don’t know how to respond. I blush a little, thank him and set it aside.

“Have you read my book?” he asks.

Flummoxed again! I pull it from my bag and open it to Page 241. “I’ve gotten this far,” I say apologetically.

“That’s good. Thanks for taking the time. It’s tough to read books like this. Most interviewers don’t have the time. They have assistants read it and they pose questions,” he says, excitedly.

Cohon might have taken writing lessons from Virginia Wolfe. His book flits back and forth in time from his childhood in Chicago, to meeting Gorbachev, to his Army days, to his first encounter with McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, who in 1966 invited Cohon to quit his job as a lawyer and purchase the McDonald’s franchise license for all of Eastern Canada. Cohon borrowed $60,000, moved from Chicago to Toronto and started opening restaurants. By 1971, he had 34 of them. Kroc offered him $1 million to sell the franchise back, but Cohon refused. Instead, he exchanged it for company shares. Cohon was the second-largest company-employed shareholder (Kroc was the first) when he set his sights on the Soviet Union.

During the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Cohon had taken a delegation of Soviets who were organizing the 1980 Olympics in Moscow to eat at McDonald’s. The Soviets were impressed, and Cohon quickly saw potential for big profits behind the Iron Curtain. His negotiations to make McDonald’s the official food provider for the Moscow Games were a spectacular failure — costing millions of dollars and killed at the highest levels of the communist government for ideological reasons, Cohon explains. (In retrospect, it was a blessing in disguise: The United States boycotted the Olympics and it wouldn’t have looked good for McDonald’s to have taken part.) Cohon persisted, and on Feb. 1, 1990, the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow. Capitalist labor had a hero in the Soviet Union.

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We order lunch from the store’s manager and I ask Cohon if Russians still perceive McDonald’s as a symbol for all things American.

“When it opened in Russia, it was a way for people to visit the West without ever going to the West,” he recalls. “At that first restaurant nearly 10 years ago, people used to take the packaging. They’d walk out with the empty bags and the wrappers and the straws — anything that had McDonald’s on it.

“In Russia today, they view it as a Russian company. We’ve got 6,000 Russian employees. We took out a newspaper ad one day. We got 27,000 written responses. All we said was, ‘We’re McDonald’s. We pay based on productivity. Would you like to come work for us?’ They used to have this line in Russia, back in the ’70s: We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us. It was the communist sort of thing.”

Cohon is an unabashed capitalist. His life reads like a Horatio Alger tale. He was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1937. His dad owned a bakery; worked hard every day. Cohon attended law school at Northwestern and was assisting a client in purchasing a McDonald’s franchise when Kroc tapped him for Eastern Canada.

Cohon attributes his success to hard work and determination. But his accomplishments in the former Soviet Union required no small amount of aplomb and a bit of fierceness as well. In his book, he recalls breaking three fingers of an Army drill sergeant who repeatedly called him “Jew boy.” After a neighbor muttered “dirty Jew” at him, Cohon bought his house out from under him.

“Could you have introduced McDonald’s into Russia if the Cold War hadn’t ended?” I ask.

“When I signed the deal back in ’86 or ’87, it was with the communists. The ideology was changing. They were allowing joint ventures. Even if it hadn’t changed 100 percent, with the contacts I’d made over those 14 years, I probably would have been able to do something, though not to the magnitude we’ve done today.”

In the process of making deals with the communists, Cohon became friends with Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, who wrote the foreword to Cohon’s book.

“I’m genuinely humbled to be his friend,” Cohon tells me of Gorbachev. “He’s a guy that I think 100 years from today, when history books are written, his name’s in the forefront. Because he helped change the world. The Berlin Wall’s down. Unfortunately, everyone at the other end blames him for everything. When you meet someone in an airport and you ask what they think of Gorbachev, they start to attack him. I’ll shift and say, but you’ve got a passport now. You’re flying to Toronto or San Francisco to visit your relatives. Isn’t that wonderful? Yes, but — it’s always the yes-but part. The way he’s being treated is unfortunate.”

“There’s been so little follow-through to what he started,” I offer.

“It’s hard to take 70 years of communism and think that overnight it’s going to change. It’s naive to think that all of a sudden free enterprise is going to come in and just be great.”

“How’s your sandwich?” Cohon asks me.

“Good. Nothing’s better than a Big Mac,” I say. And at the moment, it’s true. I’m slightly hungover from a night out on the town, and the meat, grease and carbo combo hits the spot.

“Well, the Quarter Pounder’s good,” Cohon says. I agree, though I don’t think I’ve ever had a Quarter Pounder. The last time I ate at McDonald’s was in college, when I was traveling in Europe. I tell this to Cohon. “You know there will be consistency!” he says with enthusiasm. “You’re tired of eating out every night in some Parisian restaurant and having a bottle of wine. You might try a Sprite, or a Coca-Cola or something!”

“No, it’s more about getting a taste of home,” I say.

I ask Cohon about the criticism McDonald’s often receives. His response is predictable: “When you’re as big as we are, there will be people that probably don’t like the business to begin with. People might say the nutritional values of McDonald’s isn’t what it should be. We answer those questions. We answer them by stating what the facts are.” He changes the subject to discuss McDonald’s charity work.

Cohon is the founder of Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities in Russia and Canada, and has used his strong business sense to raise money. All the proceeds from “To Russia With Fries” are being donated to Ronald McDonald House charities in the U.S. I ask Cohon if he feels giving money is an obligation. “Yes,” he says, and tells me about an award he received last year from Yeltsin for his charity work.

“It was called the Order of Friendship. It’s the highest medal they give out that’s non-military to a foreigner … The other recipients of different medals that day were the guy who invented the AK-47 assault weapon; another was someone who designed the Mir space station; another was a Nobel laureate. When he called me up there it was like a dream. I knew Yeltsin. I had a lot of fun with him, but when you’re standing there and he’s pinning this thing on –”

Cohon breaks off to tell me that the media is too obsessed with crime, government problems and corruption in Russia. “The part of the story they have to write about is the more human element of the place. How can we help them get out? What can we do to go over there and assist as they fight their way out of 70 years of communism?”

Office workers are starting to pour into the restaurant. Our burgers and fries have been devoured. There’s time for one, maybe two more questions. I ask him about his friendship with Yeltsin. Cohon responds with another story.

While visiting Cohon at a McDonald’s, Yeltsin had a Big Mac. “He takes the layers apart and bites in,” Cohon recalls. “There’s a hundred media waiting outside. He lets one guy in who asks, ‘How’s the Big Mac?’ He says, ‘Not enough salt.’ That was his answer.” Cohon tells me that a month later at a McDonald’s opening, Yeltsin’s wife, Naina, was biting into a Big Mac when a reporter said to her, “Your husband said there’s not much salt — what do you think?” “She said, ‘Ah, Boris — it doesn’t matter what I make, there’s never enough salt for that guy.’”

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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