First McDonald's in the USSR, 1990

The Fast Food Phenomenon: Russia’s Other Booming Market

Published: October 10, 2004

In 1990 fast food exploded on the Russian market in one of the Cold War’s most memorable dying images. Today, the industry is one of Russia’s “healthiest” – experiencing steady growth from both foreign and domestic investment, perhaps despite the challenges the Russian market offers.

One of Teremok’s popular blini stands in Moscow.

The first western arrivals were Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, and Baskin Robbins. McDonald’s is today the market leader, with an impressive 80+ percent of the total market, achieved by the early, substantial, and continual investment by the parent company. Most brands rely on franchising, and thus have grown slower. The burger giant now operates in more than a dozen Russian cities and has ambitious plans to open a restaurant at every Moscow metro stop, which are perhaps ten minutes walk apart. The McComplex, a massive factory opened during the financial crisis of the 90’s to ensure both quality and quantity of supply, has also been invaluable to growth. The factory provides everything from patties to pies to even laundry facilities for uniforms. Although the business policy of increased volume has faltered in America, it is still working well in Russia. With 10 times the service capacity of its average competitor, the restaurant is booming in the still under-served market.

"Little Spuds:" A Kroshka kartoshka Stand
“Little Spuds” – A Kartoshka Stand.

Baskin Robbins is one of Russia’s largest franchises. Combining the allure of a western brand name and the quality assurance of a local factory with the traditional Russian passion for ice-cream (street kiosks for ice-cream operate even in winter) has been a perfect recipe. Other franchises such as Pizza Hut, its sister company KFC, Sbarro’s, and Subway all have smaller presences and have faced more problems in the  market. KFC closed a franchise on the heavily trafficked Arbat after the store “failed to meet quality standards.” Subway experienced a major setback after it unwittingly became involved in a Mafia dispute over a St. Petersburg location. Also, the largely undefined nature of franchising within Russian law is problematic. Franchises must register with the government twice, once as a business as once as a patent-sharer, and are not seen as financially independent from the parent company. This, combined with the new scarcity of suitable real estate, has led to a recent tapering of foreign investment and new brand names.

A Teremok Blini – popular fast food.

Another problem for western brands has been the successes of Russian competitors. Opening a Russian franchise costs half of what a western franchise does, with name recognition being nearly equal. Georgian chains like the buffet-style Moo-Moo and the salad bar based Yolki-Polki have funny names and growing pocketbooks. Both capitalize on Russian nationalism, offering tasty traditional dishes in pseudo-traditional atmospheres of rustic wood, vine overhangs, and costumed servers. Other, more non-traditional options have also succeeded. Rostik’s (Russia’s KFC) has become a market leader in drive-through restaurants. The company now has a deal with KMB Bank to open two-year credit lines for new franchises, poising it for substantial growth.

Furthermore, most Russian fast food locations are, quite literally, based on the streets of Moscow in the form of kiosks. The largest chains are Kroshka-Kartoshka (stuffed baked potatoes) Russkoe Blini (filled Russian pancakes) and Stop Top (hot dogs). Collectively, no-name kiosks selling roast chicken and shawrma meat rank second in popularity (following only McDonald’s) despite the infamous poor quality of their raw materials and sanitation. To combat the food-poisoning deaths, Moscow passed a law that would have shut down any food-service establishment without water and sewage (which no Russian kiosk possesses) in 2002. This law has apparently been ignored or amended, however, as kiosks are still a-plenty in Moscow (although employees can be seen washing their hands from a bottle).

Moscow’s fast food market is estimated at between $400-700 million per year, with per annum growth of perhaps 20 percent. The market is far from saturated and, despite problems, will likely continue to expand steadily over the next several years. Working in the market’s favor are, first, the rapid expansion of shopping malls in Russia, which are creating new real estate for fast food and, second, Russia’s broad-based, young, not-so-picky clientele. According to recent market research, half of men and women between 16-50 buy fast food at least once a week. Most of this clientele considers location (64%) and cost (54%) most important, while fewer regard quality (43%) and cleanliness (25%) as important factors. This means that rapid expansion, even with cut corners, will likely be rewarded.

Above all, history will recall fast food in Russia as an image of the dead Cold War. McDonald’s, of course, turned their arrival to the market into a PR coup, broadcasting on morning shows across the US the lines of shapka-toped patrons waiting in line for their taste of capitalism’s victory. In 1997, Pizza Hut aired a commercial featuring Mikhail Gorbachav addressing a crowd praising pizza and freedom. But whatever its theoretical implications, fast food will be fast growing in Russia for several more years.

About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh has lived in Moscow since 2003, when he first arrived to study Russian with SRAS. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. At SRAS, Josh assists in program development and leads our Home and Abroad Programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: SRAS Staff Member

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