TORONTO — George Cohon, who founded McDonald’s Canada and helped open the company’s first franchise in Russia, has passed away at the age of 86.
He passed surrounded by family, who had gathered in Toronto to celebrate American Thanksgiving. Cohon’s son, Mark, former commissioner of the Canadian Football League, posted about his father’s death Saturday morning on X (formerly Twitter).
Born in Chicago, Cohon worked at his father’s law firm after graduating from law school. In 1967, he learned of a client looking to acquire McDonald’s franchisee rights in Hawaii, according to an article by The Canadian Press in January 1991. Cohon found out that similar franchisee rights were up for grabs for Ontario – and the rest of Canada east of the province – prompting him to borrow $70,000 to buy them.
He moved with his wife and two children to Toronto and, in November 1968, Cohon opened his first McDonald’s location in London, Ont. He also founded Ronald McDonald House Charities Canada in the 1980s. Cohon’s work with the organization helped him become a member of the Order of Canada in 1988 and he was later promoted to a companion of the Order of Canada in 2020. Cohon’s work with the charities raised more than $5.7 million in Canada last year.
Additionally, in the late 1980s, Cohon expanded McDonald’s into Russia. With a system that was years behind North America’s, the company built a $40-million “McComplex” food-processing plant and invested in farmers’ equipment, irrigation, soil and transportation networks. The investments helped modernize Russia’s production system. The first location opened in Moscow on January 31, 1990.
Cohon was Foodservice and Hospitality’s first Man of the Year winner (precursor to KML’s Pinnacle Awards) in 1989 and an early winner of the Rosanna Caira Lifetime Achievement Award.
Cohon was known for his youthful energy and his hamburger-shaped business cards that carried his name, contact information and a voucher for a free Big Mac.
“Perhaps if his name was Mr. McDonald, he would be as well-known as the product he markets,” reads a statement from the Governor General of Canada’s website. “But there are countless charitable organizations and community groups that have benefitted from his wholehearted support, time and energy.”