McDonald’s reopens in Ukraine, feeding customers’ nostalgia — and hopes for the future: NPR

Customers and delivery couriers stand outside a newly reopened McDonald’s in Kyiv on Tuesday. Three locations in Kyiv reopened for the first time since the Russian invasion on February 24.

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Customers and delivery couriers stand outside a newly reopened McDonald’s in Kyiv on Tuesday. Three locations in Kyiv reopened for the first time since the Russian invasion on February 24.

Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images

KYIV, Ukraine – McDonald’s has reopened in Ukraine after seven months of war.

The American fast-food chain temporarily closed its more than 100 locations in Ukraine on February 24, the day Russia invaded, citing worker safety.

Three locations reopened Tuesday, welcoming war-weary Ukrainians back under the warm glow of golden arches. Ordinary citizens and high-ranking government officials alike gathered to take selfies with their Big Macs and eat meals they haven’t been able to enjoy in months.

“It’s a nice gift from McDonald’s,” says Yaroslav Holovatenko as he grabs a big, tasty quarter-pounder in a cold, rainy Pozniaky park on the outskirts of the capital Kiev, near all three reopened McDonald’s.

Holovatenko and his friends have come from the other side of the city, across the Dnipro River. But this pilgrimage to McDonald’s is more than a cross-town trek. It’s also about nostalgia – and hope for the future.

Jaroslav Holovatenko (left) and a friend with a McDonald’s meal in Kyiv on Wednesday.

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Jaroslav Holovatenko (left) and a friend with a McDonald’s meal in Kyiv on Wednesday.

Ashley Westerman/NPR

“When the war started, no one thought about McDonald’s, but now that things are back to normal, it’s nice to eat for comfort,” he says.

As many as 3 million people have returned to the city since the Russians withdrew from the suburbs of Kyiv in April, according to Mayor Vitaly Klitschko.

“Over the past few months, we’ve been convinced that our reopening will bring a small, albeit important, sense of normalcy back to Ukraine,” McDonald’s senior vice president Paul Pomroy posted on the company’s Ukrainian Instagram page in August. “Ukrainian leaders have said that returning to work is the best way for foreign companies to support the local economy and the Ukrainian people.”

And Holovatenko doesn’t take this meal for granted.

He is from Donetsk, which, along with three other Russian-occupied regions, will hold a referendum this weekend on whether to become part of the Russian Federation. If Russia annexes these regions, there will be no McDonald’s in Donetsk either. The chain has closed all its locations in Russia, where local franchisees replaced McDonald’s in a not-so-subtle coup.

Glovo food delivery couriers wait to pick up orders outside a McDonald’s restaurant after the chain reopened in Kyiv on Tuesday.

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Glovo food delivery couriers wait to pick up orders outside a McDonald’s restaurant after the chain reopened in Kyiv on Tuesday.

Valentin Ogirenko/Reuters

There’s a catch with the newly reopened McDonald’s locations in Ukraine: customers can only order through delivery apps; dine indoors. It’s also competitive as Ukraine’s version of Craigslist has a cottage industry for McDonald’s orders.

Outside one branch, dozens of people stand in the rain waiting up to three hours for food ordered ahead of time via a delivery app – while others frantically update their phones, grasping at the chance to place an order at all.

Meanwhile, delivery and takeout drivers buzz around the restaurant, clutching coveted orders like precious newborns.

Ukraine’s main ride-sharing company says rides to malls with open McDonald’s are down 20-30% after restaurants reopen.

“It’s fast. I take the order, deliver to the sidewalk and repeat,” says Maksym Khadav, one of the delivery managers. “I understand the complaint, but it’s just food.”

Hundreds of people line up outside the Soviet Union’s first McDonald’s restaurant on its opening day in Moscow on January 31, 1990. It was the first American fast food restaurant to enter the Soviet Union.

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Hundreds of people line up outside the Soviet Union’s first McDonald’s restaurant on its opening day in Moscow on January 31, 1990. It was the first American fast food restaurant to enter the Soviet Union.

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Still, he’s proud to have been the first driver in line for a pickup truck at Aladdin Mall. He estimates that there were about 300 couriers in line behind him.

Every Ukrainian of a certain age remembers when the first McDonald’s opened in the Soviet Union in 1990. Although a meal cost half a day’s wages, hundreds lined up for American burgers in Moscow.

“I thought they were going to launch nuclear missiles at us, but instead they gave us McDonald’s and peace,” the boy was quoted as saying in the news at the time.

Holovatenko says the McDonald’s reopening in Kyiv feels like a younger generation’s version of what happened in 1990. With long queues comes hope for a free and democratic future.