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George Cohon holding a Ronald McDonald doll on Jan. 18, 1984.Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

George Cohon, one of Canada’s most famous businessmen, greatly expanded the footprint of McDonald’s restaurants in this country and in 1990 broke through the Iron Curtain to open the first McDonald’s in the Soviet Union, a feat that demanded more than a decade of diplomacy, weeks on end in dreary Moscow hotels and a search for the right potatoes to make McDonald’s French fries.

“This was not just a personal triumph for George,” former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in the introduction to Mr. Cohon’s autobiography, regarding the arrival of McDonald’s in Moscow. “It was a breakthrough which demonstrated that new economic relations between our country and the rest of the world were possible. It was a symbol of the good will of international business, which would be important in helping us build a democratic society.”

Mr. Cohon died in Toronto on Nov. 24 at the age of 86.

George Alan Cohon was born in Chicago on April 19, 1937. His father, Jack, was a lawyer, and his mother, Carolyn, a housewife. His father also took over a family bakery called Cohon’s Rye Bread. Young George always had a job. He had a strong work ethic from the age of 11.

Mr. Cohon got a law degree from Northwestern University, where he met his future wife, Susan Silver. After graduating, he was drafted into the Air Force. It was not a happy experience. When an overbearing sergeant called him by an antisemitic slur, Mr. Cohon challenged him to an arm wrestle and crushed the man’s fingers. It was not the first or the last antisemitic incident in his life.

After the Air Force, Mr. Cohon started work at his father’s small Chicago law firm, Cohon & Raizes. He was representing a client when the man on the other side of the table was Ray Kroc, who built McDonald’s into a commercial success after buying it from its two founders.

Mr. Cohon impressed Mr. Kroc, who offered the young lawyer the franchise for Ontario and everything east in Canada except Ottawa. The first McDonald’s outside the United States had already opened in Richmond, B.C., in 1967.

Mr. Cohon scraped together the US$70,000 (equivalent to $600,000 today). He and his wife moved to Toronto with their two sons. Mr. Cohon opened his first McDonald’s restaurant in London, Ont., in 1968.

He soon opened other McDonald’s outlets and repaid the money he had borrowed to buy his franchise. After six years, Mr. Cohon had made McDonald’s the largest fast-food chain in the country and in 1973 he became a Canadian citizen.

Mr. Kroc offered to buy back the Canadian franchise for $1-million in the early 1970s, but Mr. Cohon wisely declined. McDonald’s Canada became the most profitable branch of the McDonald’s empire. Mr. Cohon did eventually exchange his franchise for McDonald’s stock. At one point he was the second-largest shareholder of McDonald’s after Mr. Kroc. The shares would split many times making the young lawyer from Chicago a very rich man.

But Mr. Cohon’s most dramatic business adventure would take place in the Soviet Union, when he set his sights on opening a McDonald’s, the symbol of American capitalism, in Moscow, a shot put toss from the Kremlin, the seat of Soviet power.

It all started at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, where Mr. Cohon had provided a bus nicknamed Big Mac to ferry athletes around. When he chanced to see members of the Russian Olympic team on the bus, he and his wife approached the athletes to say hello. The Russian security guard and a nervous Canadian official from External Affairs tried to stop them. The man from External Affairs said they would have to go through protocol to get on the bus.

“My friend, the protocol is I own the bus,” Mr. Cohon said. Super salesman that he was, he produced his McDonald’s business cards that guaranteed the holder a free Big Mac. The athletes loved it, the RCMP and KGB guards melted away and the man from External Affairs was left to sulk.

It was, to borrow a line from Casablanca, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“In 1976 at the height of the Cold War, I decided we should open McDonald’s in what was then the Soviet Union. Where do you start when you decide to introduce one of the most potent symbols of Western capitalism into a system dedicated to the very opposite,” Mr. Cohon wrote in his autobiography. “There were no rules, so we invented our own rules.”

His memoir, titled To Russia With Fries (written with ghostwriter David Macfarlane), details the many trips he made to Russia to seek a licence to open a McDonald’s from the apparatchiks who ran the city of Moscow. He and his colleagues would be left cooling their heels in government offices. Once, when Mr. Cohon arrived at a hotel where he had a reservation but was told there was no room, he solved the problem by pulling out his McDonald’s business card. Russians were fascinated at the prospect of a McDonald’s in Moscow.

The man running Moscow didn’t get the concept Mr. Cohon was proposing, though. “He wanted us to build a big commissary and deliver meals to 400 schools at one end of the city,” Mr. Cohon told a reporter. “I said no, we don’t work that way.” The man from McDonald’s had to explain the idea. He had a 15-minute video produced to explain fast food to Russian audiences.

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 derailed the project for a while, but Mr. Cohon was soon back. In a 1988 profile, the writer Larry Black described Mr. Cohon’s drive for a Soviet McDonald’s outlet as “an obsession.”

In 1988 he got close to opening a McDonald’s on Moscow’s Gorky Street. That didn’t happen. By that time McDonald’s Canada had teams in Russia sourcing meat, bread and potatoes. Mr. Cohon sent people to Russia to teach farmers to plant the right kind of potatoes and not use the Soviet potato harvesters which tended to cut the potato into ribbons. He was careful not to upset the Russian farmers, exercising potato diplomacy along with hamburger diplomacy.

The first McDonald’s restaurant finally opened on Moscow’s Pushkin Square on Jan. 31, 1990. People started lining up at 4 a.m. It was worldwide news. Good Morning America and The Today Show went live from Pushkin Square that morning and Dan Rather hosted the CBS Evening News from there as well. CBC News covered it and so did the BBC.

By the end of the day, 30,000 Russian customers had been through the doors. It became the busiest McDonald’s in the world. It was a huge victory.

One of the reasons the fast-food outlet was such a hit with was that customers could buy a hamburger, fries and a Coke with rubles. Most restaurants kept out locals by charging foreign currency, which only the privileged few had access to.

But by pricing the food in rubles, Mr. Cohon guaranteed ordinary people could eat in McDonald’s. “George put a sign in every restaurant that said rubles only,” a colleague said. However, at five rubles 75 kopecks, a hamburger meal cost triple the average hourly wage in the Soviet Union.

“George Cohon is literally synonymous with McDonald’s in Russia,” Mr. Gorbachev wrote in To Russia With Fries. “His strong personal identification with McDonald’s is one indication of how much people need and appreciate this successful business.”

In 1991, Mr. Gorbachev was overthrown, and the Soviet Union dissolved, with Boris Yeltsin in charge. This led to more McDonald’s restaurants opening in Russia.

Throughout his restaurants’ expansion, Mr. Cohon was also deeply committed to charity work. In 1982, he established a Canadian branch of Ronald McDonald House Charities, a non-profit organization that provides travel and temporary accommodations for families with seriously ill children. It was a serious charity and one of the main reasons Mr. Cohon was admitted to the Order of Canada.

Mr. Cohon was named to all three levels of the order: member in 1987, officer in 1992 and in 2019, companion, the highest level restricted to only 165 living Canadians at any given time. The citation for that last honour was as unconventional as Mr. Cohon himself: “Driven by a passion for the well-being of children, George Cohon is a phenomenon who continues to have a life-changing impact on society,” and it went on to praise him for having led efforts “to raise hundreds of millions of dollars through McHappy Day and established Ronald McDonald House Charities in both countries [Canada and Russia].”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described Mr. Cohon as “an accomplished businessman who never stopped giving back, and who dedicated himself to lifting others up. Our families’ paths crossed multiple times over the years, and his passion for serving and supporting others was always evident.”

Well-known for his practical jokes, Mr. Cohon once passed himself off as former prime minister Pierre Trudeau on a trip to Israel, though the two men didn’t really resemble each other.

McDonald’s pulled out of Russia last year after the invasion of Ukraine, a country Mr. Cohon’s grandparents left in 1906 after Jews were persecuted in a czarist pogrom. George’s father, Jack Kaganov, was six months old when he arrived at Ellis Island in New York with his parents. That is when the family name was changed to Cohon.

George Cohon retired from McDonald’s in 1997, though he continued to be active with the Ronald McDonald House charity. He enjoyed visiting the facilities with one of his dogs. One thing he was proud of was saving Toronto’s Santa Claus parade when it threatened to go under due to lack of funding. He was chair of both the Ontario Science Centre and Israeli Bonds Canada.

Mr. Cohon was a keen tennis player and played golf. He joined the Rosedale Golf Club in 1997, but the former manager of the club once testified in court that Mr. Cohon had been kept out earlier because there was a rule against allowing Jewish members. Mr. Cohon was gracious about it, saying in 2004: “The bigger picture that I see is that, if years ago they had a rule that was a bad rule and these people were enlightened enough to change it in this day and age, they should be complimented. That’s what should happen in this day and age, and that’s my take on it.”

Mr. Cohon was a dedicated family man and was great with people, able to talk to the highest officials, such as Mr. Gorbachev, as well as regular patrons at his restaurants.

He had a vacation home in Palm Beach, Fla., where he kept the 38-foot fishing boat McHappy III. Along with his Order of Canada, Mr. Cohon had several honorary degrees, Russia’s Order of Friendship and an award from Israel.

Mr. Cohon leaves his wife, Susan; sons, Mark and Craig; a sister, Sandy Raizes; and three grandchildren.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story, which was published briefly in error, stated incorrectly that George Cohon opened the first McDonald’s restaurant in Canada. He opened the second McDonald’s in this country and was not involved with the first, which opened in Richmond, B.C., in 1967.

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