McDonald’s & Other Fast Food Giants Battling For Siberian Customers

Image courtesy of Jeepers Media

When you picture Siberia, you probably imagine a vast, frozen landscape, tucked away in the coldest corner of the globe. You probably don’t picture the Golden Arches lighting up the frigid night, but now even Siberia has several McDonald’s locations — and it’s got plenty of competition for customers.

For example, there’s a challenge to McDonald’s fast food throne in the town of Tomsk — more than a thousand miles east of Moscow — where a billboard reads, “KFC. Opening soon,” reports The Wall Street Journal.

McDonald’s has been making a push into remote areas like Siberia, where it is facing rivals like KFC and Burger King who are doing the same thing. McDonald’s in particular has taken a slow and steady approach to expanding in Russia since its first location opened there in 1990, because logistics can make it tough. Again, this is literally Siberia we’re talking about, where winters can be extremely brutal and long, with temperatures often remaining well below freezing for months on end.

Despite those challenges, the company says it has more than a dozen restaurants open in Siberian towns and is planning more.

“It’s not difficult to open more restaurants in towns where we have a presence,” Khamzat Khazbulatov, chief executive of McDonald’s Russia, told the WSJ. “It’s even necessary, in order to optimize operating expenses and logistics costs.”

A Yum Brands spokeswoman told the Journal KFC is “strong and growing” in Siberia, with 71 restaurants in 17 cities, while Burger King’s parent company remained mum.

I also asked Consumerist’s regular Siberian correspondent, my brother, Sean — who has lived in Kyzyl, a mere 14 hours away by car from Tomsk, for the last 12 years — about the fast food landscape there, and he confirmed that folks “love” the stuff. Partly, just because it’s something to talk about.

“People always used to come back from Moscow talking about how they definitely stopped into a McDonald’s,” he told me. “It’s a sight to go see.”

Indeed, the WSJ notes that when the Tomsk location opened in September, there were several hundred customers waiting in line. About 6,000 customers were served in the first 24 hours.

One thing that people like a lot about McDonald’s — and other fast food — in Siberia is that the burgers are tastier, in my brother’s opinion. “Better meat in Siberia,” my brother says.

To that end, when McDonald’s first opened in Russia, it imported 80% of what it sold. Now, 85% is produced in Russia, Khazbulatov said, protecting the company from a Russian import ban on certain products from the West that was put in place in 2014.

Now, some local restaurateurs are also trying to imitate the cachet of global brands, my brother explained.

“We briefly had a ‘KFC,’” he says of a copycat effort. “It has turned into a place called ‘Chickens’ which has advertising that features a Milwaukee magazine cover about burgers from 2010. We also have a place called BurgerLike.”

If Kyzyl had a real McDonald’s, “people would totally go there,” he adds.