George A. Cohon, a Chicago-born entrepreneur who, by introducing the Big Mac — or the Bolshoi Mak — to Moscow in 1990, helped whet Russians’ appetite for capitalism, died on Nov. 24 at his home in Toronto. He was 86.
His death was announced by his son Mark. No cause was given, but he was treated years earlier for prostate cancer.
A Fuller Brush salesman in college with a flair for merchandising, Mr. Cohon (pronounced CO-hen) abandoned his law practice when Ray Kroc, the McDonald’s founder, 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 traded the franchise for McDonald’s stock and in 1992 became senior chairman of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada, which included some 1,500 eateries, and of McDonald’s in Russia.
Though waiting on lines was part of daily life in Soviet Russia, opening day in Moscow — Jan. 31, 1990 — exceeded all expectations when an estimated 10,000 people queued up in Pushkin Square for Happy Meals and double cheeseburgers (Mr. Cohon’s favorite). By the end of the day around 30,000 people had sampled the menu at the mammoth 700-seat restaurant, emblazoned with its trademark golden arches.
In his memoir “To Russia With Fries” (1997, with David Macfarlane), Mr. Cohon said that a chance encounter with a Russian delegation at the 1976 Montreal Olympics had prompted him to pursue 14 years of exasperating negotiations — or what he called “hamburger diplomacy” — to overcome the hurdles of Communist bureaucracy.
He was nearly strangled by the red tape. The Moscow municipality eventually wound 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 foodstuffs featured on its traditional menu.
Still, Mr. Cohon wrote, the restaurant’s successful 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 Russia’s “Capitalist Hero of Labor.”
Mr. Cohon managed to maintain friendly relations with most of the Kremlin’s warring progressive factions, so that when Mikhail S. Gorbachev was deposed in 1991 and the Soviet Union atomized, McDonald’s already had an in with his successor, Boris N. Yeltsin.
“In Russia, even states of emergency can be overcome with a well-placed gift,” Mr. Cohon wrote.
In 2022, McDonald’s announced that it would begin closing its 850 Russian restaurants and selling them off in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the country from which Mr. Cohon’s father’s family had fled in the early 20th century in the wake of a pogrom.
George Alan Cohon was born on April 19, 1937, on the South Side of Chicago. His father, Jack Cohon (born Kaganov), was a lawyer who took over his family’s bakery when his father died. His mother, Carolyn (Ellis) Cohon, was a homemaker.
George received a Bachelor of Science from Drake University in Des Moines and graduated from the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago in 1961. After serving in the Air Force, he practiced at his father’s law firm from 1961 to 1967. At one point he unsuccessfully represented a client who was seeking a McDonald’s franchise in Hawaii. The client was offered the Eastern Canada franchise but turned it down; 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 recalled Mr. Kroc saying. “‘Why don’t you get involved?’”
He accepted the offer and moved to Toronto with his family.
“We didn’t know a soul, we didn’t have much money, and McDonald’s then was far from being the household word it is today,” he wrote in his memoir.
He soon learned that Canadians like vinegar on their French fries. He went on to found the Canadian arm of Ronald McDonald House Charities, which has provided accommodations for more than 25,000 families whose children are receiving medical treatment.
“The pride I have is what I’ve been able to do through McDonald’s, not only to sell hamburgers or to make a profit but to be a good member in communities around the world — to help society,” he told Foodservice and Hospitality magazine in 2015.
A Canadian citizen since 1973, Mr. Cohon was also instrumental in saving Toronto’s annual Santa Claus Parade when the original sponsor withdrew.
In August, he was promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada — the most prestigious honor granted by the country to a living civilian.
He lived in Toronto and had a vacation home in Palm Beach, Fla., where he was a trustee of the Society of the Four Arts, a nonprofit cultural programming organization.
In addition to his son Mark, who was commissioner of the Canadian Football League, Mr. Cohon is survived by another son, Craig, who helped introduce Coca-Cola to Russia; his wife, Susan (Silver) Cohon, whom he met at law school; his sister, Sandy Raizes; and three grandchildren.
At McDonald’s in Canada, where he was chairman, president and chief executive until 1992, Mr. Cohon was a self-styled, hands-on “front counter kind of guy,” as he wrote in his memoir. He handed out hamburger-shaped business cards that included a voucher for a free Big Mac.
The journalist and author Peter Newman had a slightly different take. In a book about Canada’s elite titled “The Acquisitors” (1975), he wrote, “The mischievous twinkle that is George Cohon’s trademark overlays the glacial glint of a tax assessor’s eyes.”