MUNICH, JULY 30 -- The East German government won't be around much longer, but as long as it lives, it aims to protect its people against the Big Mac Attack.
The fall of communism in Eastern Europe has brought a storm of fast-food outlets. But McDonald's attempt to expand into East Germany turned into a McFizzle today in East Berlin.
McDonald's Germany announced a press conference and grand reception at one of East Berlin's fanciest hotels. The company was going to serve Big Macs. It was going to open a mobile burger joint on the Alexanderplatz, the city's enormous main square. And it was going to reveal plans to open the first 10 McDonald's branches in a country where, until a few months ago, fast food was an oxymoron.
Alas, it was not to be.
Tony suburbs and beach resorts around the United States have tried to keep out the Golden Arches, but only one city can threaten to block the burger chain with the Berlin Wall.
The East Berlin city council refused to allow the company to open the mobile McDonald's. There were already too many vendors in the square, the council said. But there are only a handful of vendors; the real aim of the move was to keep the Big Mac on the west side of the city.
The chairman of McDonald's Germany, Walter Rettenwender, was not amused. "We are a successful restaurant chain offering quality products, not some wandering snack bar," he said.
The East German environmentalists who helped start last fall's peaceful revolution beg to differ. In their talks on German reunification, the East Germans have been unable to persuade their West German brethren to save the air by imposing a speed limit on highways. But they figure they might be able to bar Big Macs.
Ernst Doerfler, chairman of the East German Parliament's environment committee, said he and other legislators will push to ban "McDonald's and similar abnormal garbage-makers" from the heavily polluted but relatively litter-free country.
Eventually, McDonald's had to scratch the gala reception after East German environmentalists threatened to disrupt the party.
Finally, the fast-food chain suffered the ultimate slap to its image. At today's press conference, McDonald's did not introduce its burgers to the East German press, but rather served the same sliced smoked salmon that most West German companies serve at such events.
McDonald's already has about 300 West German locations and still plans to open its first East German unit this year, in the small town of Plauen in the far south of the country.
Rettenwender pledged to spend $950,000 on research into using recycled paper instead of plastic foam to package burgers. But East German environmentalists were unmoved by McDonald's generosity.
"How about some proper measures to cut down on litter, like real plates?" anti-McDonald's organizer Gisela Orlowski told Reuters.
German street food vendors -- a relatively rare sight -- generally serve wurst on plates, which are returned to the vendor after use.
At the country's first Burger King, which opened last month in Dresden, customers do not seem deeply concerned about their Whopper packaging. Rather, they have only two questions about this bit of Americana:
Why is the food so expensive? (Prices are about the same as in the United States, but the average East German earns less than $10,000 a year.)
And a question that millions of Americans have asked for decades: Why do you have to ask for ketchup?