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Transplanted American Behind Big Macsky’s in Red Square

April 9, 1989

TORONTO (AP) _ When the first McDonald’s restaurant opens in Moscow, the Canadian executive who helped make it happen probably will be remembering the Montreal Olympics and a fateful bus ride 13 years ago.

George A. Cohon, a Chicago native who is president of McDonald’s of Canada, recalled that the company’s corporate buses were lent to Soviet organizers of the 1980 Moscow Olympics touring Montreal in 1976.

Cohon, who still quotes McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc with respect and relish, went along for fun and made a stop at a Montreal McDonald’s part of the tour.

″That night we started talking about the possibility of getting involved,″ he said.

Cohon said the plan to have McDonald’s at the 1980 Moscow Olympics fell through before the U.S.-led boycott - ″In a way it was the best deal I never made″ - but he kept thinking about ″280 million people, hungry - this has got to be a great market.″

″I just went back at it,″ he said in an interview at company headquarters in Toronto.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies allowing joint ventures with foreigners has made the agreement possible. McDonald’s of Canada, a subsidiary of the U.S. fast-food giant McDonald’s Corp., holds a minority position in partnership with the Moscow City Council’s Food Service Administration.

Cohon, just back from his latest trip to Moscow and planning another trip in May, said the food distribution center for the operation is under construction. After it’s ready late this year or in early 1990, the first two of 20 restaurants specified in the agreement will open near Red Square.

He said the additional restaurants will be opening slowly, as the supply and distribution lines are established and the staff trained.

″We’re not in a race with anybody,″ he said. ″The Big Mac has to taste the same in Moscow as it does in New York or London.″

The 51-year-old executive came to Canada in the late 1960s as a young lawyer representing a client who had wanted to open what would be the first McDonald’s franchise in eastern Canada. But the client decided Canada was too cold, so Cohon grabbed the opportunity to open the franchise himself.

The first McDonald’s in Canada opened in 1967 in British Columbia. The first in Cohon’s territory opened a year later in London, Ontario, 118 miles west of Toronto. He still remembers the date, Nov. 11.

The eastern and western Canadian operations were consolidated in 1971 and Cohon was named president.

The 500th McDonald’s in Canada opened in 1986 and the 600th will open this summer, a huge operation at Toronto’s new Skydome stadium where the American League’s Blue Jays will play.

Cohon, who became a Canadian citizen in 1975, is an enthusiastic booster of the restaurants and the country that was the site of McDonald’s first expansion outside the United States.

″When we started here, I don’t think we faced the competition McDonald’s had in the United States,″ he said. ″Also, Canadians are very mobile. They travel a lot - so there was an awareness level of McDonald’s that was really helpful to us.″

Cohon said he decided to become a Canadian citizen so he could vote. He has become a fixture on the local and national charity circuits, perhaps best known for his efforts in saving the Toronto Santa Claus parade that dates back almost to the turn of the century.

Cohon said he heard about the parade’s financial troubles and decided it was a children’s favorite. ″I said, ’it’s an institution. You can’t let it die,‴ he recalled.

He musters the same enthusiasm to talk about the new Moscow McDonald’s operation, where the distribution center will have ″a meat plant, a potato plant, a dairy and a bakery, all under one roof.″

″I don’t have horror stories,″ he said. ″In any new country where McDonald’s goes, it’s hard. It was hard in Canada - but I have no horror stories.″

He predicted that the hardest part will be coping with the lines and the volume that the first restaurants will generate. He also insisted that the company’s standards won’t be compromised in the effort to do business in the Soviet Union - ″and our partners understand that.″

Cohon said that at this point he’s not even thinking about the first 20 restaurants called for in the Moscow agreement. ″I’m thinking about the first one,″ he said.

But he said that he couldn’t have imagined 600 restaurants in Canada when he was at the same point here a little more than 20 years ago.

″The potential for the Soviet Union - once we get it going properly -is 280 million people,″ he said.

End adv for Sunday, April 9

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