A taste of normalcy back on Belgrade menu

Reopened McDonald's features bomb shelter

April 18, 1999

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- It's not every McDonald's that features Serbian folk music, a target symbol in its advertising and a bomb shelter.

But then, selling American fast food while NATO warplanes loom overhead can be a risky business.

Yesterday, Big Macs returned to Belgrade's menu, as McDonald's reopened three restaurants about three weeks after 15 of its Yugoslav franchises were attacked by angry Belgrade citizens in the wake of NATO's bombing campaign.

There was a time when the main McDonald's in Belgrade racked up as many as 17,000 customers in a day, 2 million customers a year in two separate years, according to the director of the Yugoslav franchise.

"This is how America is conquering the world, by food and McDonald's," said Dejan Vladovic, a 36-year-old who was among the customers at the grand reopening of a cavernous, two-floor restaurant in Belgrade's city center.

It was a day for burgers and fries, milkshakes and Cokes, as people sought a sense of normalcy despite nightly air raids.

Besides the McDonald's reopening, thousands turned out for the start of the Belgrade Marathon. In a show of sportsmanship, 39 elite athletes chose to run together on the 26-mile, 385-yard journey, crossing the finish line in a pack beneath a banner that read "Run for Fun Not from Bombs."

"This wasn't to make a political point, it was just to celebrate friendship, people to people," said Zane Branson, 41, of Moneta, Va., the lone American in the field. "People here aren't angry with Americans, just American policy."

Branson came to Belgrade before the NATO bombing started March 24 to help organize the marathon.

When the first bombs fell last month, some Serbs vented their anger on Western symbols, trashing airplane offices and cultural centers, and spraying graffiti on the walls of some of the prominent NATO-country embassies.

With its American roots and food, McDonald's became a prime target of vandals. Two days after the first bombs fell on Belgrade, the main store was attacked by a mob that smashed windows and damaged cash registers and an orange juice dispenser.

Even the managing director for McDonald's restaurants in Yugoslavia, Draglijub Lakic, said he could understand why the stores became targets.

"This was a normal reaction to a brutal aggression of this country," he said. "It came deeply and emotionally from the heart of the people. This is Balkan mentality."

Walking a tightrope between his desire to sell American fast food and his Serbian patriotism, Lakic carefully laid the groundwork before reopening.

He said the local McDonald's franchise is a Yugoslav-registered company, that it employs up to 1,000 people and that 75 percent of the raw materials are produced locally.

He also wooed key elements in the society, donating food to hospitals, police and fire departments while urging employees to participate in a blood drive. The restaurant also promised to donate a portion of sales to the local Red Cross.

"We belong here," Lakic said.

To reinforce that point, signs were placed over plywood boards that covered the main restaurant's smashed windows.

"All of us are targets," the message read, concluding, "if the restaurant has to be broken, let NATO do it."

Patrons who arrived yesterday were greeted by the usual McDonald's paraphernalia of Golden Arches and Happy Meals. But there were a few wrinkles. The in-store advertisement included the ever-present target symbol that has become a local sign of survival.

No air raid sirens were sounded yesterday afternoon, but if they had, the patrons still could have eaten in style in the lower-floor seating area, which doubles as a shelter.

Workers were delighted to flip burgers and serve customers.

Irena Milenkovic, 23, said she was heartbroken when the windows were smashed. And she also felt for the kids who wouldn't be able to celebrate their birthday parties at the restaurant.

"We realized the restaurant was a part of us," she said. "And it was like a part of me was broken. I felt very sad."

Milka Scekic, 38, a store manager, was confident that when the store reopened, the customers would come back.

"People like our food," she said. "They like what young people all over the world like. It was important for us to open and start working again."

A woman and her young son were the first customers to arrive at 9 a.m. sharp. Others filtered in throughout the day before the 5 p.m. closing, hours earlier than usual.

But it was a far cry from the throngs that normally assemble in one of the busier franchises in Europe.

"We are trying to pretend in front of the children that everything is normal," said Biljana Zeljkovic, who was dining with her husband Zoran and two children, Phillip, 4, and Jovana, 5.

The kids gobbled up Happy Meals while the parents tried to enjoy an afternoon out before shutting themselves in for the night.

"Of course we have hard feelings about the bombing," Biljana Zeljkovic said. "At night, everything in this country stops."

But for one afternoon, at least, life returned to normal.

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