George Cohon Shares the Story Behind McDonald’s Canada at KML’s Icons and Innovators Breakfast


By Amy Bostock

TORONTO — At yesterday’s KML Icons & Innovators Breakfast event, approximately 120 industry professionals gathered at the Sheraton Centre Toronto to hear the story behind the success of McDonald’s in Canada and Russia from company founder George Cohon.

During his conversation with KML editor and publisher Rosanna Caira, the foodservice icon, who began his career as a lawyer in the U.S., entertained the crowd with anecdotes about playing tennis with the former head of the KGB, opening the first McDonald’s restaurant in Russia and his passionate commitment to the Ronald McDonald House Charity — a program he established in Canada in 1981.

Citing lessons learned from his mentor, Ray Kroc, Cohon stressed the value of working hard, team work and enjoying what you do. “You have to love going to work every day,” he said, recalling “we always had fun.”

When asked about how he and his team have built such a successful brand, Cohon said “You do it one restaurant at a time and now we have [almost] 1,500 restaurants [in Canada].”

A chance meeting at 1976 Olympics in Montreal led Cohan to begin laying groundwork for McDonald’s restaurants in Russia — a long, political process culminating in the opening of the first location in Moscow in 1990. “I referred to it as burger diplomacy,” said Cohon. There are now approximately 600 locations across Russia and the original restaurant in Moscow has become the top-performing McDonalds in the world.

As competition intensifies, Cohon said McDonald’s has had to evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of consumers — particularly the millennial generation. “Of course I worry about those customers,” he said. “But I worry about all customers; I don’t want to lose any customers.”

New technology and menu innovations have helped the brand stay on top in the QSR segment, but according to Cohon, the real key to his company’s success has always been its unwavering commitment to quality, service, cleanliness and value. “To be on top, you have to deliver better than everyone else,” he said.

When asked about his role in bringing the Ronald McDonald House concept to Canada, Cohon said he has always felt a responsibility to give back to the communities in which the brand operates — both in Canada and in Russia. “I never wanted [McDonald’s] to be seen as coming into a community and not giving anything back.”

At Ronald McDonald House, he said, “It’s one family at a time and the difference that you make for those families is significant.” Today, there are 15 Ronald McDonald Houses, 14 Ronald McDonald Family Rooms and two Ronald McDonald Care Mobiles across Canada.

Read the full interview with George Cohon in the November issue of Foodservice and Hospitality magazine coming soon.

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