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To Russia with Fries

by George Cohon with David Macfarlane

George Cohon, the president of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada, is not a writer, and doesn’t pretend to be. The last chapter of To Russia With Fries, his memoir about his crusade to establish McDonald’s in Russia, features a conversation with his “ghostwriter,” David Macfarlane, who tries to urge him to reflect and tie things together. Instead, Cohon continues to pepper the ghost with anecdotes and book marketing ideas. The chapter inspires laughter because the reader knows two things by now about George Cohon: he is, to the core, both a salesman and a storyteller. It’s a good thing the tales this storyteller wants to share are compelling, because they usually manage to overshadow the salesman’s relentless pitches regarding the philosophy and success of McDonald’s.

To Russia With Fries has all the elements of an archetypal success story: by following his gut instincts, and persisting in the face of setbacks and naysayers, Cohon establishes McDonald’s in what was once considered a most unlikely place for it, and immerses himself in a fascinating period of world history: the dying days of the Soviet Union and the turbulent changes that have followed. The wonder of it all is not lost on Cohon. Reading about his first, nerve-wracking encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev, about him hovering anxiously while Boris Yeltsin bites into his first Big Mac, about the friendships he develops with people like Aleksandr Yakovlev, the former Soviet ambassador to Canada, brings a sense that Cohon, himself, is a little awed that this is all happening to him.

If it’s possible to write a book that’s anything like a trip to McDonald’s, Cohon and Macfarlane have done it. To Russia with Fries is easy to swallow, laid back, and universally welcoming. Its hodge-podge of anecdotes is a bit chaotic, in much the same way a busy McDonald’s Playland can resemble a benign cyclone. And what makes the book most reminiscent of McDonald’s is its unfailing repetition of its key message. Nothing is impossible, says Cohon, again and again, whether it’s raising millions of dollars for State of Israel Bonds or setting up a reliable potato supply chain in Russia. This repetition can become a bit annoying, like seeing a McDonald’s TV commercial too many times – but it unquestionably gets his point across.