I’m Lovin’ It (Most of the Time): A Brief History of McDonald’s in Serbia

Russian courts on Wednesday ordered the closure of three McDonald’s restaurants in Moscow for the maximum 90 days allowed by law, including the first location to open in the Soviet Union back in 1990. Officials said the three American culinary outposts were being shuttered for health violations, but the mounting case against McDonald’s in Russia has been widely interpreted as retaliation for Western sanctions. Some media outlets have reported that the more than 430 McDonald’s restaurants in Russia are all due to be inspected soon. Whatever the Big Mac’s fate is in Russia, McDonald’s already has a history of stirring up major controversy in the former Yugoslavia, where the fast food chain has been both loved and loathed, a source of national pride and a detested symbol of US foreign policy. 

In March of 1988, Belgrade, Yugoslavia became “the first city in the communist world” to open a McDonald’s restaurant. American newspapers were still steeped in quaint Cold War clichés at the time, and ran headlines like “First Big Mac Attack Against Communism!” and “McMarxism?” Nearly half a century after two brothers named Mac n’ Dick opened the first McDonald’s restaurant in California’s Inland Empire, “Mickey D’s” received a heroes’ welcome in socialist Yugoslavia. With lines wrapped around the block and police forces brought in for crowd control, the opening of the first McDonald’s in Eastern Europe was by all accounts the most successful restaurant launch in Belgrade history. More than 6,000 people were served on opening day, setting a new record for Europe.

And thus began the long and deeply conflicted relationship between McDonald’s and the people of Belgrade.

Despite a successful launch, opening a McDonald’s in a communist country wasn’t without its challenges. For one, currencies from Eastern Europe, including the Yugoslav dinar, couldn’t be converted into dollars.

This meant that the Yugoslav McDonald’s pretty much operated on the barter system. Profits from the Belgrade franchise were transferred to the McDonald’s corporation not in cash but in Yugoslav food, which the company used to stock its restaurants in Western Europe. This early civilization barter model soon evolved into the black market smuggling model when Yugoslavia was placed under sanctions in the 1990s, meaning sacks of hard currency had to be physically dragged across the border. Only after the year 2000 were international bank transfers permitted in Serbia.

Fake McDonald's restaurant in Kosovo
A DIY McDonald’s restaurant in Kosovo

A second challenge was the serious lack of so-called “McDonald’s quality” food supplies on hand. While meat was found in the usual Balkan abundance, it proved much more difficult to perfect the recipe for McDonald’s ketchup. As Gara Stevanovic, purchasing director for McDonald’s said at the time, “We have tomato paste, tomato puree, tomato sauce, but nothing on the market like tomato ketchup.” They must have gotten the recipe right eventually because nowadays Serbs like to drench their food, including pizza and pasta, in obscene amounts of the condiment, much to the horror of foreign onlookers.

There were also some early cultural barriers to the restaurant’s success. In 1988, the concept of “American-style fast food” hadn’t permeated Yugoslav society. After a meal, even at McDonald’s, people liked to sit, smoke and complain about corrupt government officials for several hours – a time-honored tradition that continues to this day. Americans, on the other hand, call that kind of activity “loitering” — a criminal offense. So in order to prevent too much post-Happy Meal lingering, McDonald’s hired several specially-trained workers whose only job was to make people eat and leave.

The fast food franchise eventually spread beyond Belgrade and throughout Eastern Europe, and soon, having a McDonald’s became a source of national pride. Some of the earliest manifestations of the mounting tensions between Croatia and Serbia before the breakup of Yugoslavia were in the songs Serbs sang about their McDonald’s at football matches. One late-1980s chant went “we have a McDonald’s, McDonald’s, McDonald’s, we have a McDonald’s, and where is yours?” Another (which rhymed in the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian) referenced the hometown of Croatian football club Hajduk Split: “Hamburger, cheeseburger, ketchup and fries, we have a McDonald’s and Split doesn’t!” Of course, there were other more inappropriate variations.

"Kolonat" restaurant in Albania
“Kolonat” restaurant in Albania

Croatia did eventually get its own McDonald’s, but only after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, in 1996. Sarajevo finally got a McDonald’s in 2011. Elsewhere in the region, Albania is still without an official McDonald’s restaurant, but is awash in imitations. The Albanian Kolonat chain, which has a very McDonald’s-inspired logo, has started offering table service.

In fact, McDonald’s restaurants in the region have been improving on the American original since the very beginning. Every McDonald’s in the United States pretty much looked the same in the 1980s. They all had bad neon lighting, and everything (possibly even components of the food) was made out of red and yellow plastic. But operators of the “first communist McDonald’s” in Belgrade actually put some thought into the interior decorating. The McDonald’s on Slavija square had a sophisticated design concept, which reflected a rustic, Provencal French style, and had pastel upholstery, amber-colored tables and floors, “discreet illumination”, and modern art on the walls. Some early visitors remarked that it was the best looking restaurant in the entire city.

The arrival of the first McDonald’s in Belgrade may have been met with an initial wave of euphoria, but a decade later, an angry mob made their anger with US foreign policy known by torching the fast food restaurant. During the first few days of the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, McDonald’s was badly damaged by arsonists. The branch’s owners responded by producing posters and lapel buttons of the golden arches topped with a traditional Serbian cap called the sajkaca. They also converted the lower-level seating area into a bomb shelter.

Less than a decade later, when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, angry mobs again set fire to the historic McDonald’s on Slavija square. Hooligans also attacked the restaurant during the 2010 Belgrade Pride Parade.

The first McDonald's in Eastern Europe.
The first McDonald’s in Eastern Europe.

Despite the semi-regular ritualistic destruction of the restaurant, a plaque on the exterior of the original building now proudly proclaims it the site of “the first McDonald’s in Belgrade”.

You may have heard about Thomas Friedman’s McDonald’s theory of war (also known as “the McPeace theory”), which posits that no two countries with McDonald’s restaurants will ever go to war against each other. Friedman reasons that a country with a McDonald’s will have achieved a level of global economic integration and prosperity that would make the prospect of going to war unappealingly risky to the rational, risk-averse powers that be. Of course, the NATO bombing in 1999 (and the 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia) proved Friedman’s theory wrong just three years after he first dedicated a column to it in the New York Times. Besides, anyone who’s ever visited a “posh” neighborhood in London knows that Russian money may be a little too well-integrated into the world economy already, including the economies of some of America’s closest NATO allies.

Apparently, some Russians have been laughing along with us about Friedman’s ridiculous McPeace theory for years. As one 2006 headline in the Russian tabloid Pravda put it, “McDonald’s to make Kosovo land of peace and happiness, US officials believe”.

A version of this story originally appeared on Bturn. It has been updated to reflect current events. 

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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia. https://www.instagram.com/lynch.lily/