MISHA ROGOZHNIKOV sits back on the standard-issue McDonald's plastic seat and watches with great anticipation as his American friend prepares to sample her first Big Mac on Soviet soil. ``Well?'' he enquires. ``Does it taste the same?''
``Pretty close,'' I reply. ``The catsup is different - it's sharper. And there are more duds in the fries than I'm used to seeing at home.'' But yes, Misha, this is the genuine article, an assurance that somehow imparts a sense that his long-isolated country has moved one small step closer to inclusion in the civilized world.
Misha likes to come here not so much for the food, he says, but for the service and the atmosphere. Even the slightly goofy scale models of Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower that decorate the restaurant are fun, says the usually dismissive reporter. In fact, a random sampling of customer opinion on a recent Saturday here found that the food itself was never the top item in anyone's review of the restaurant.
``Everybody was so helpful and polite!'' squealed a girl from Rostov-on-Don visiting Moscow with a group from summer camp. The others, clutching large bags of food for that night's supper, nodded in agreement.
``My favorite thing was the bathroom - so modern and clean,'' added their camp counselor.
Indeed, the constant attention to cleanliness throughout the restaurant contrasts sharply with standard Soviet practice, in which most food establishments close down once a month for a ``sanitary day,'' leading one to wonder what they do for sanitation on the remaining 29 or 30 days.
The demand for food at the Moscow McDonald's is so high that the restaurant wouldn't dare take a break from its 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year schedule. From opening day on Jan. 31, 1990, it's been the busiest McDonald's in the world: 50,000 customers a day, consuming 13,000 Big Macs and 11,000 apple pies. The initial hiring of 650 crew members proved inadequate, and the staff is now up to 1,150 people.
When you enter Moscow's McDonald's, your appetite whetted by the hour-or-so wait in line, it's the frenzy of activity behind the counter that makes an immediate impression. Scores of Soviet teens in maroon shirts scurry about behind a gleaming row of 27 cash registers, taking and filling orders and crying out almost frantically, arms waving, ``Come here! We're free!'' when a register is open. At the end of every transaction, the customer gets a warm smile and big thank-you.
What makes these young people try so hard? ``It's a fun place to work,'' says Glen Steeves, a Canadian who is area supervisor of the Moscow McDonald's joint venture.
``We train them, we offer the opportunity to work as a member of a team. There's job rotation, so on any given day each worker gets to do a variety of different things. There's the possibility to be promoted and earn bonuses. And we arrange fun activities.''
Recently, McDonald's hired a large boat and a rock band and sent 500 of the staff on a dance-cruise down the Moscow River.
``And no,'' Mr. Steeves chuckles, ``it's not true that anybody who's worked in a Soviet cafeteria is automatically disqualified from working here.''
Still, it's hardly a coincidence that the average age for crew members is 18 - young enough, certainly, not to have learned the art of disinterested or even hostile Soviet restaurant service.
Artur, 23, began working at McDonald's four months ago after finishing his degree at a Moscow aviation institute. He had been offered a job in a ``box,'' slang for a secret defense establishment, but the pay was only 180 rubles a month and he would have been disqualified from traveling abroad, or even to other Soviet cities to play in chess tournaments.
So Artur headed for McDonald's, where he now makes 410 rubles a month. This includes a 50 rubles a month bonus he receives for being a good worker and is well over the national average salary of 250 rubles a month.
Artur likes working here because it's ``Western,'' he says as he goes down the line outside handing out brochures that explain the McDonald's menu. He is also well aware that some of the original crew members have already been promoted into management and that the most promising managers could be sent for training in the West. But for now, Artur is happy to do his part to uphold his perception of McDonald's standards.
``One guy dropped a Big Mac and put it back to be sold, and he was fired on the spot,'' he says, an incident Glen Steeves later disputes. ``If a sandwich has been sitting for 10 minutes getting cold, we throw it out. Same with a Big Mac that looks crooked.''
Inside the eating area, families crowd around tables piled high with burgers and fries, and about three drinks per person. Two women and their children, Muscovites on their first visit here, admit sheepishly that they couldn't possibly finish everything they've ordered. ``But it all looked so pretty!'' says one mother, eyeing her untouched strawberry shake.
Nearby, two little girls with impossibly huge eyes stop eating and stare when a reporter and photographer approach their table. ``Please, have something to eat!'' offer the girls' mother and grandmother, who also seem to have bought several of everything McDonald's sells. ``I insist, drink something, eat something,'' the mother repeats.
Soon the excessive hospitality is explained: They are from the Caucasus, Armenian refugees from Baku, to be exact. Grandma has found work and is treating the family to its first McDonald's meal - just so we don't think refugees live this extravagantly all the time. Indeed, with a typical person spending about 8 rubles per visit (a Big Mac alone goes for 3.75 rubles), taking the whole family here adds up.
The highlight of the day comes when an entire wedding party shows up straight from the nuptial palace, in all their wedding regalia, to take a few pictures - and get some takeout food, of course. It turns out that the groom and the best man both work at McDonald's, and stopping by to see their buddies on duty was an important wedding-day pilgrimage.
Had they visited Lenin's tomb yet?
``That comes next,'' says the best man. ``We had to go here first.''