Five Years After Russia's First Big Mac Attack

Five years ago, to great fanfare in Moscow and abroad, McDonald's opened its first restaurant in the Soviet Union, an attractive complex of glass, bright lights, and smiling faces that was to herald in a new era not only for McDonald's but for Soviet service as well.

It was big news back then. Every newspaper, every television network covered the arrival of that most sacred of Western symbols -- the Big Mac -- in a country known best for its food shortages, long lines and surly service.

McDonald's was to be the first real fast-food restaurant in Moscow, open to anyone who wanted to come, with fresh, hot food available for rubles and not dollars. That was a big deal in those days, because ruble profits could not easily be repatriated.

When they proudly opened their doors on January 31, 1990, pretty much everyone thought the people at McDonald's were out of their minds. They were going to lose money hand over fist and be forced to close, skeptics predicted. Even if they stayed, keeping supplies up seemed an impossible task. Could they really churn out enough Big Macs?

I was sure that McDonald's would go the way of previous foreign-inspired food establishments: Item after item would drop off the menu until the place was left serving sosiski (hot dogs) and muddy coffee in cold-rinsed cups. The staff would stop smiling and start yelling.

You can't blame me for my cynicism. After all, I had spent days on end as a student combing the city for something decent to eat. Even the few Italian-style pizzerias had become completely Sovietized. I remember being served one pizza in a pool of grease topped with pickles and fatty kolbasa. Mama mia.

But George Cohon, senior chairman of McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd., is an eternal optimist. "It won't last, people used to say," he noted at McDonald's colorful anniversary celebration on Tuesday. "But here we are five years later."

Indeed. The Pushkin Square restaurant is the busiest McDonald's in the world, having served more than 73 million customers. Its staff is smiling. There are still Big Macs and now even Mak Kantri (Mac Country) burgers. Along with Red Square and the Kremlin, it is a regular stop for tourists and visiting dignitaries, including the world's biggest McDonald's fan, U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Far from closing, McDonald's is growing. Its three restaurants serve 70,000 customers daily. Two more are under construction, and a drive-through location is planned for on the way to Sheremetyevo airport. It has worked out an enviable supply network, with 90 percent of its needs met from within the former Soviet Union. It has started a Ronald McDonald Children's Charities of Russia and will build a McHappy Place for kids.

Most important, McDonald's has shown that it can be done. In the early days, customers would wait up to four hours in a line that stretched all the way around Pushkin Square, giving a uniquely Soviet meaning to the term "fast food." But this line was different, because everyone knew the food was not going to run out.

A Big Mac costs more than it did back then: 6,800 rubles ($1.70) now versus 3.75 rubles (63 cents) in 1990. Then again, in the United States it costs more than $2 and about twice that in Europe.

Despite the increase, people keep coming. There is a sense of optimism there, reflecting Cohon's spirit. Happy Anniversary, McDonald's.