George A. Cohon, a Chicago-born entrepreneur who, by introducing the Big Mac – or Bolshoi Mak – to Moscow in 1990, helped whet Russians’ appetite for capitalism, died Nov. 24 at his home in Toronto. He was 86 years old.
His death was announced by his son Marco. No cause was given, but he had been treated for prostate cancer years earlier.
A Fuller Brush salesman in college with a knack for merchandising, Mr. Cohon (pronounced CO-hen) abandoned his law practice when Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, offered him the chain’s franchise for eastern Canada. Mr. Cohon borrowed $70,000 to buy the rights and opened his first restaurant in London, Ontario, in 1968.
In 1971, he exchanged the franchise for McDonald’s stock, and in 1992 he became senior president of McDonald’s Canada restaurants, which included about 1,500 restaurants, and McDonald’s Russia.
Although queuing was part of daily life in Soviet Russia, the opening day in Moscow – January 1, 2019. 31, 1990 – exceeded all expectations when around 10,000 people queued in Pushkin Square for Happy Meals and double cheeseburgers (Mr. Cohon’s favorite). By the end of the day some 30,000 people had sampled the menu at the 700-seat Mammoth restaurant, decorated with its signature golden arches.
In his memoir “To Russia With Fries” (1997, with David Macfarlane), Cohon said that a chance meeting with a Russian delegation at the 1976 Montreal Olympics had pushed him to pursue 14 years of exasperating negotiations – or what called “hamburger diplomacy” – to overcome the obstacles of the communist bureaucracy.
It was almost strangled by bureaucracy. The Moscow municipality eventually ended up owning 51 percent of the Pushkin Square restaurant, and McDonald’s had to build a $21 million processing plant and import many of the food items on its traditional menu.
Yet, Cohon wrote, the success of the restaurant’s opening had finally “demonstrated that new economic relations between our country and the rest of the world were possible.” He was later hailed by Pravda, then the official newspaper of the Soviet Union, as the Russian “capitalist labor hero”.
Mr. Cohon managed to maintain friendly relations with most of the Kremlin’s warring progressive factions, so much so that when Mikhail S. Gorbachev was deposed in 1991 and the Soviet Union atomized, McDonald’s already had a connection to his successor, Boris N Yeltsin.
“In Russia, even states of emergency can be overcome with a well-placed gift,” Cohon wrote.
In 2022, McDonald’s announced that it would begin closing and selling off its 850 Russian restaurants in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country Cohon’s father’s family fled in the early 20th century following a pogrom.
George Alan Cohon was born on April 19, 1937 in the South Side neighborhood of Chicago. His father, Jack Cohon (born Kaganov), was a lawyer who took over the family bakery when his father died. His mother, Carolyn (Ellis) Cohon, was a homemaker.
George earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Drake University in Des Moines and graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago in 1961. After serving in the Air Force, he practiced at his father’s law firm since 1961 to 1967. At one point he worked unsuccessfully representing a client looking for a McDonald’s franchise in Hawaii. The customer was offered the Eastern Canada franchise but he declined; Mr. Kroc then offered it to Mr. Cohon.
“’George, you don’t want to be a lawyer for the rest of your life,’” Mr. Cohon recalls Mr. Kroc’s words. “’Why don’t you get involved?’”
He accepted the offer and moved to Toronto with his family.
“We didn’t know anyone, we didn’t have much money, and McDonald’s then was far from the household word it is today,” he wrote in his memoirs.
He soon learned that Canadians like vinegar on their french fries. He went on to found the Canadian branch of Ronald McDonald House Charities, which has provided housing to more than 25,000 families whose children receive medical care.
“The pride I have is what I have been able to do through McDonald’s, not just sell burgers or make a profit, but also be a good member of communities around the world, to help society,” he said Catering and hospitality revised in 2015.
A Canadian citizen since 1973, Mr. Cohon was also instrumental in saving Toronto’s annual Santa Claus Parade when he was the original sponsor with Drew.
In August he was promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada, the most prestigious honor bestowed by the country on a living civilian.
He lived in Toronto and had a vacation home in Palm Beach, Florida, where he was a trustee of the Society of the Four Arts, a non-profit cultural programming organization.
In addition to his son Mark, who was commissioner of the Canadian Football League, Mr. Cohon leaves behind another son, Craig, who helped introduce Coca-Cola to Russia; his wife, Susan (Silver) Cohon, whom he met in law school; his sister, Sandy Raizes; and three grandchildren.
At McDonald’s Canada, where he was chairman, president and CEO until 1992, Mr. Cohon was a self-styled, hands-on “counter guy,” as he wrote in his memoir. He handed out hamburger-shaped business cards that included a coupon for a free Big Mac.
Journalist and author Peter Newman had a slightly different view. In a book about the Canadian elite called “The Acquisitors” (1975), he wrote: “The mischievous twinkle that is George Cohon’s trademark overlaps with the icy twinkle of a tax assessor’s eye.”