George Cohon, founder of McDonald’s Canada who helped bring chain to Soviet Union, dead at 86

Canadian businessman George Cohon, who founded McDonald’s Canada and helped open the fast-food company’s first franchise in the Soviet Union, has died, his family said on social media. He was 86.

“Last night we said farewell to my dad,” Mark Cohon, a former CFL commissioner, wrote Saturday on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

“Our family, Canada and the world lost a remarkable man.”

Cohon was born in Chicago in 1937 and moved to Toronto in the 1960s. In 1968, he opened the first McDonald’s location in Canada, in London, Ont.

He also founded Ronald McDonald House Charities Canada in the 1980s, a non-profit organization that provides travel and temporary accommodations for families with seriously ill children. Cohon’s work with the organization helped him become a member of the Order of Canada in 1988, and he was later promoted to a companion of the Order of Canada in 2020.

Cohon cuts a cake with children at a McDonald’s restaraunt in Moscow’s Pushkin Square in January 2000, to celebrate the location’s 10th anniversary. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Cohon held the position of chairman, president and CEO of McDonald’s Canada until 1992, according to a profile of him on the Canadian Business Hall of Fame website.

Cohon “was an accomplished businessman who never stopped giving back, and who dedicated himself to lifting others up,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Saturday on X.

“Our families’ paths crossed multiple times over the years, and his passion for serving — and supporting — others was always evident.”

To Russia with fries

In the late 1980s, Cohon was charged with expanding McDonald’s into the Soviet Union. He found a system that was years behind North America’s, and the company couldn’t find reliable suppliers of power or gravel for construction, let alone beef and potatoes.

“In Moscow, we had explored all sorts of meat plants and dairies and bakeries and found that they weren’t up to our standards,” Cohon wrote in his 1997 autobiography, To Russia with Fries, whose proceeds from sales went to Ronald McDonald House. “The simplest things became logistical headaches.”

The company built a $40-million “McComplex” food-processing plant and invested in farmers’ equipment, irrigation, soil and transportation networks. The investments helped modernize Russia’s production system.

The first location opened in Moscow on Jan. 31, 1990, and locals began lining up near Pushkin Square as early as 4 a.m. Cohon used appropriately gigantic scissors to cut the ribbon.

People in business attire use a large pair of scissors to cut a ribbon.
Cohon, left, cuts the ribbon to open a McDonald’s location in Moscow in January 1990. (CBC Archives/The National)

At the end of the day, 30,000 new customers had passed through the doors — to mixed reviews — and the restaurant had set a McDonald’s record for most customers served on an opening day.

The unequivocal success of the first day of his new venture brought out the poet in Cohon, who supposed that Russian writer Alexander Pushkin might have written a poem praising the availability of “meat, bread, potatoes and milk — of the highest quality.”

The restaurant, along with all McDonald’s locations in Russia, closed in March 2022. According to the Reuters news agency, the company pulled out of the country in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

WATCH | From the archives: McDonald’s opens in the Soviet Union: 

George Cohon, fast food and Moscow

Featured VideoThe McDonald’s Canada founder cut the ribbon at what was to become the first of many of the fast-food restaurants in the Soviet country.

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