Look out, Yugoslavia, there's a Big Mac attack coming on! First McDonald's opens in a communist country, and the fans are lining up

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From morning to evening, crowds gather outside a newly renovated building in Slavija Square. ``I want a Big Mac,'' cries 16-year old Andrea Klaren. ``The one I tasted in Germany was so-o-o good.''

``You call it fast food?'' asks 60-year old Steva Ilic. ``I've never seen anything like it,''

``I'm going into the Army tomorrow,'' laments 18-year old Damir Masic. ``Why aren't they open yet?''

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Poor Damir. Lucky Andrea and Steva. The first Belgrade McDonald's, the first McDonald's ever in a communist country, opens today. McDonald's officials believe that Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union represent a huge potential market - almost 400 million hungry eaters.

Throughout the region, quick meals are available only from dirty, decrepit stands. In Yugoslavia, they serve a greasy cheese pie called burek, and an even greasier pork hamburger, pljeskavica.

``Just look at all those people pounding at our doors,'' says Bob Franke, the McDonald's representative here. ``East Europe is a natural for fast service business.''

Getting to this ``natural'' market, however, hasn't been easy. Communists aren't predisposed to favor Western fast food. In Budapest, where another McDonald's is opening next month, ideologues branded hamburgers, along with rock and roll, as disruptive capitalist influences on youth.

In Belgrade, Academy of Sciences hard-liners opposed McDonald's initial plans to occupy a historical monument on the central Knex Mihailova boulevard. The McDonald's people lost valuable time finding the other location on decaying Slavija Square.

Financial problems also had to be overcome. East European currencies, including the Yugoslav dinar, cannot be converted into dollars. It will be a barter operation: McDonald's will receive its profits in Yugoslav products, most probably foodstuffs which it hopes to use to supply outlets in Western Europe. McDonald's formed a 50-50 percent joint venture with Genex, one of Yugoslavia's largest agricultural and tourism companies.

``We wanted to introduce McDonald's high standards to Yugoslavia,'' recalls Predrag Dostanic, managing director of the McDonald's-Genex joint venture. ``McDonald's has the image, the name, the quality.''

Achieving McDonald's quality in Yugoslavia proved a challenge. The Genex people began working with suppliers three years ago. They managed to find McDonald's quality meat and cheese. Coca-Cola was easy, too: It has been on the Yugoslav market for 15 years. But they struggled to produce potatoes and ketchup.

McDonald's potatoes are Russet po-tatoes, a brand developed in Idaho. Russets make fantastic French fries, never soggy, always crunchy and firm. But they are unknown in Yugoslavia and difficult to grow.

``The Russets really need attention,'' complains Gara Stevanovic,'' the Genex purchasing director for McDonald's. ``We had to work and work with the farmers.''

McDonald's ketchup is even more of a problem. It is soft and sugary. The Yugoslavs never had seen anything like it, and still haven't mastered it.

``We have tomato paste, tomato puree, tomato sauce, but nothing on the market like tomato ketchup,'' says Ms. Stevanovic. ``We still haven't managed to get the right amount of sugar.''

In order to get everything right, the Belgrade operation is starting with the basic McDonald's menu. There will be Big Macs, fries, Coke, but no breakfasts, no Chicken McNuggets, no salads. As the operation smooths out, the offerings will be expanded.

Some customers are impatient. Bata Kukadinovic, a 35-year old tourist agency operator, says he has eaten in McDonald's all over the world. For months now, he has passed by Slavija Square to watch the progress. As the opening approaches, he eyes the menu and becomes upset.

``Where is that famous apple pie?,'' he demands. ``I see Big Mac, I see fries, I see shakes. Why no apple pie?''

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