McDonald’s closes 850 restaurants in Russia 32 years after launch in Moscow

0

When it first opened its doors in January 1990, 30,000 Russians who had lived under the iron fist of the Soviet government waited patiently to get their first taste of McDonald’s Big Mac.

The fast food giant’s first branch in Russia opened in Moscow’s Pushkin Square and caused so much excitement that some people queued without knowing what it was for.

By the end of the day, the store had set a new opening day record for the company and more than 27,000 people had applied for waiter positions. Only 600 were accepted.

The famous Golden Arches, which were iconic in almost every corner of the world, had finally moved beyond the Iron Curtain and quickly became a symbol of the Soviet acceptance of American capitalism.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall months earlier and the massive Soviet Union beginning to crumble, the McDonald’s store had become an unlikely cultural touchstone that would represent a thawing relationship with the end of the Cold War.

McDonald’s announced yesterday that it is temporarily closing all of its outlets in Russia — including the famous original outlet after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Their move followed similar shots from Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Starbucks, pushing Russia further into international isolation — after three decades of involvement with the West.

BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, who queued for the opening of McDonald’s in Moscow, said the closure was “hugely symbolic”.

McDonald's announcement of the temporary closure of 850 restaurants came just over 32 years after the American fast food giant opened its first store in the then capital of the Soviet Union, Moscow.  Pictured: Customers line up for the opening of the first McDonald's on January 31, 1990

McDonald’s announcement yesterday of the temporary closure of 850 restaurants comes just over 32 years after the American fast food giant opened its first store in the then capital of the Soviet Union, Moscow. Pictured: Customers line up for the opening of the first McDonald’s on January 31, 1990

McDonald's announced yesterday that it is temporarily closing all of its outlets in Russia, including its famous original outlet following Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.  Pictured: Pushkin Square McDonald's opening day queues

McDonald's announced yesterday that it is temporarily closing all of its outlets in Russia, including its famous original outlet following Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.  Pictured: Pushkin Square McDonald's opening day queues

McDonald’s announced yesterday that it is temporarily closing all of its outlets in Russia — including the famous original outlet after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Pictured: Pushkin Square McDonald’s opening day queues

The famous Golden Arches, which were iconic in almost every corner of the world, had finally moved beyond the Iron Curtain and quickly became a symbol of the might of American capitalism when the Soviet Union collapsed. Pictured: An elderly Soviet woman eats a hamburger at the restaurant Pushkin Square on opening day

Journalist Yuliya Chernova, who was a young child when Russia’s first McDonald’s outlet opened, yesterday recalled the “delicacy” of a milkshake when she first tried it.

The Pushkin Square McDonald’s opened on January 31, 1990, about 18 months before the Soviet Union collapsed. It was the American giant’s 11,201st store.

Pictured: A period Daily Mail commentary on the battle to bring 'Big Mac to the Muscovites'

Pictured: A period Daily Mail commentary on the battle to bring 'Big Mac to the Muscovites'

Pictured: A period Daily Mail commentary on the battle to bring ‘Big Mac to the Muscovites’

It had taken 13 years of negotiations before the Soviet authorities let the hall open. Discussions began in 1976 and were led by George A. Cohon, the president of McDonald’s Canada.

It then cost $50 million to get the operation going.

The restaurant chain’s most famous burger – the Big Mac – was known in Russia as the Bolshoi Mak, with bolshoi meaning “big” in Russian.

The Daily Mail’s original coverage of the opening of Pushin Square described how some Russians arrived before dawn hoping to get their hands on burgers and fries.

That was so popular, the queue to get into the room ended up taking more than 90 minutes.

McDonald’s Mr Cohen said of the outlet opening: “It’s been a long, long road. It has also been worth every drop of sweat.

“Today is the most exciting day of my life, and I salute everyone who has come along this path with me.”

An 18-year-old client told the Daily Mail at the time: “I’ve seen places like this in American movies, but I wondered if I’d ever be in them.

“I’ve been watching this building get ready for months.”

Another said: ‘I will be here every week. It’s already my favorite food.

Other astonished customers told the New York Times that the ‘Bolshoi Mak’ was ‘something like you’ve never tasted before’.

‘You take a sandwich, a very nice sandwich, and you cut it in half. Then you add some grilled meat, top quality meat, mind you, not like the meat we get here,” they said.

‘Then some cheese, then a lot of vitamins and then you add some spinach. And that, comrades, is the Bolshoi Mak.’

It wasn’t just the customers scrambling to get through the restaurant doors. Of the 600 vacancies advertised, approximately 27,000 applications came in.

When the location opened, restaurants in Russia were known for terrible hygiene, lack of menu options, and poor service.

It had taken 13 years of negotiations before the Soviet authorities let the hall open.  Discussions began in 1976 and were led by George A. Cohon, the president of McDonald's Canada

It had taken 13 years of negotiations before the Soviet authorities let the hall open.  Discussions began in 1976 and were led by George A. Cohon, the president of McDonald's Canada

It had taken 13 years of negotiations before the Soviet authorities let the hall open. Discussions began in 1976 and were led by George A. Cohon, the president of McDonald’s Canada

That was so popular, the queue to get into the room ended up taking more than 90 minutes.  Some passersby encountering the excitement joined the queue without even knowing what it was for

That was so popular, the queue to get into the room ended up taking more than 90 minutes.  Some passersby encountering the excitement joined the queue without even knowing what it was for

That was so popular, the queue to get into the room ended up taking more than 90 minutes. Some passersby encountering the excitement joined the queue without even knowing what it was for

Feelings about the lack of choice were made clear by another customer, who told The Washington Post that “finding a decent place to eat is one of our biggest problems.”

“This place only looks different from the outside. Everything is so clean and bright,” they added.

However, due to the low wages of almost all people in Russia, eating at a McDonald’s location was a luxury, rather than the cheap option it offered in Western countries.

One customer said: ‘We certainly couldn’t afford to eat here every day. This is a top restaurant by our standards.’

The Pushkin Square restaurant, however, was welcoming to all, with a brass sign outside saying “For Soviet Rubles Only” in a dig at other restaurants nearby that would serve Westerners with more easily convertible dollars or pounds.

The Pushkin Square restaurant was welcoming to all, with a brass sign outside saying 'For Soviet rubles only' in a dig at other restaurants nearby that would suit westerners with more easily convertible dollars or pounds

The Pushkin Square restaurant was welcoming to all, with a brass sign outside saying 'For Soviet rubles only' in a dig at other restaurants nearby that would suit westerners with more easily convertible dollars or pounds

The Pushkin Square restaurant was welcoming to all, with a brass sign outside saying ‘For Soviet rubles only’ in a dig at other restaurants nearby that would suit westerners with more easily convertible dollars or pounds

The famous Golden Arches, which were iconic in almost every corner of the world, had finally moved beyond the Iron Curtain and quickly became a symbol of the might of American capitalism when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The famous Golden Arches, which were iconic in almost every corner of the world, had finally moved beyond the Iron Curtain and quickly became a symbol of the might of American capitalism when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The famous Golden Arches, which were iconic in almost every corner of the world, had finally moved beyond the Iron Curtain and quickly became a symbol of the might of American capitalism when the Soviet Union collapsed.

As the years wore on and Russia embraced capitalism, hundreds of McDonald’s stores opened, along with those of rival fast food chains such as Pizza Hut (a few months later in 1990) and KFC (1995). Rival Burger King was left with his first catering industry in 2010.

Even the ruling class welcomed their arrival, with former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev famously appearing in a 1998 ad for Pizza Hut.

But in a matter of days, the slow arrival of western brands has been drastically reversed.

Led by oil giants like BP and Shell, which faced boycotts if they don’t end their Russian partnerships, the past week has seen a wave of companies, from Apple and Ikea to Volvo and Visa, suspend or shut down their operations.

The last batch of brands to discontinue services were Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi, all of which came soon after McDonald’s.

Western sanctions and encouraging brands to temporarily leave Russia will make it clear to mainstream Russians that the Ukrainian invasion comes at a high price, even if the real costs are somewhat hidden by the state media.

McDonald’s has promised to continue to support its 62,000 employees in Russia with full salaries, and has said the lights on the golden arches will only go out “temporarily.”

“For 66 years, we’ve believed that communities get better when there’s a McDonald’s nearby,” McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski said in a statement.

Now it is unclear to millions in Russia how long this will not be the case.

.