ALMATY, Kazakhstan — A group of teenagers idle outside their favorite fast-food haunt in the Kazakh city of Almaty, posing for selfies and giggling at the absurdity of a rebranding minus a brand name.
"'We are open,' is that the new name?" one asked, laughing and pointing to the sign on the front of the restaurant that featured a telltale yellow "M," in the Russian word for we, (мы).
Inside, though, where burger-lovers were returning in droves two months after McDonald's restaurants closed down around the country, the Ms were all gone.
On the uniforms of the waitstaff, they had been stitched over with square yellow patches. On the Heinz sauce packets, they were blotted out with black pen.
"Everything is basically the same, except I noticed my wrap was fuller than before," enthused Amangeldi Amanulla, a student who said he used to visit McDonald's regularly before the chain closed in November 2022, citing supply-chain issues.
"But there aren't enough sauces," complained his friend, who gave her first name as Amina. "I'm missing my teriyaki sauce and the Thousand Island salad dressing."
For some, meal consistency is the main priority, even if the new fare on offer comes under slightly altered names — a "beef tasty" rather than a "Big Tasty," for instance.
But others cramming into one of five McDonald's venues in Central Asia's richest country that were opening their doors this week expressed concern that the new restaurants could fall under the Vkusno i Tochka (Tasty And That's It) brand that has emerged after the fast-food giant quit Russia over Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
McDonald's exit from the Kazakh market, formalized in a January 5 statement, remains somewhat murky. The local owner of the franchise, Food Solutions KZ, has refused to expand on the nature of its problems regarding supplies. A report published by business news agency Bloomberg on the eve of the statement cited "disruptions triggered by the invasion of Ukraine" that "left [Kazakhstan] without a substitute for Russian meat supplies."
The fact that Food Solutions KZ's ultimate beneficiary, tycoon Kairat Boranbaev, is currently in jail in Kazakhstan on embezzlement charges adds another layer of mystery to the story.
In Russia, McDonald's exit and the emergence of its successor clone, Tasty And That's It, now in more than 800 venues across the country, is old news. But the combination of Boranbaev's precarious position and the apparent dependence of his business on Russian supplies has fueled speculation that the chain might be set to expand to its neighbor to the south.
Last week, the Kazakh Justice Ministry acknowledged it was looking into a request by the company behind Tasty And That's It to register its trademark in Kazakhstan.
Nartai, a 19-year-old who says he used to eat in McDonald's around once a week, was among the customers who said he would not welcome the Russian brand's arrival, even if the name was to be translated into Kazakh. "I am against the war [in Ukraine] so I would definitely not welcome another Russian business here. On TikTok people are saying [the restaurants might be renamed] Tamak, which means food in Kazakh. I like this idea," he said.
Responding to questions from journalists during a pause in the trial of his boss Boranbaev on January 10, Food Solutions KZ director Aset Mashanov said that the company was working on a "local brand." He also appeared to rule out the possibility of the restaurants becoming part of the Tasty And That's It chain and said his company was prioritizing the creation of a network of local suppliers.
"Will that lead to the return of [McDonald's]? I can't say. Perhaps they will be satisfied with the conditions, or perhaps some geopolitical issues will resolve themselves. We don't exclude this possibility, but we cannot solve them ourselves," Kazakh news website Tengrinews quoted Mashanov as saying.
Assel Kozhakova, CEO of the strategic communications firm Redpoint Kazakhstan, told RFE/RL that popular demand for national brands in Kazakhstan has grown stronger since international supply chains first witnessed major disruption during the coronavirus pandemic and on the back of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. "People are in search of identity, a national identity, a national code," she said.
So-called "cancel culture" has also made itself known in Kazakhstan, she says, citing an incident last year wherein Internet users flocked to downrate a widely used app after the company's owner was perceived to have made comments demeaning the Kazakh language. A case opened against the businessman for inciting racial hatred was later dropped, and the businessman made a public apology.
"The origins of products and services that people are buying have become more important for them," Kozhakova said. "Is it from Russia or Ukraine or Europe? Are businesses serving customers in the Kazakh language? Geopolitics is in business now, and so a Russian brand could be a red flag for some consumers."
McDonald's was a relative latecomer to Kazakhstan, arriving in 2016, some four years after direct rival Burger King and six years after fried-chicken giant KFC. But with the well-connected Boranbaev behind the local franchise, it soon made up for lost time, establishing 24 venues across Kazakhstan, including prime real estate in Almaty and the capital, Astana.
Three years prior to the opening, Boranbaev's daughter, Alima, married Aisultan Nazarbaev, the grandson of then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev. Aisultan Nazarbaev died in London aged 29 in 2020.
The Nazarbaev family's standing in Kazakhstan was then badly damaged by regime-shaking unrest in January 2022 that appeared to empower President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev at the expense of his octogenarian mentor.
Boranbaev was one of two members of the clan to be jailed in the aftermath of the unrest, with Nazarbaev's nephew, Kairat Satybaldy, sentenced to six years in prison for embezzlement in September 2022.
Bizarrely, even while behind bars, Boranbaev was mentioned in Russian media reports as a potential bidder for the business McDonald's was leaving behind in Russia.
In the event, the chain signed a deal to sell its business there to a local licensee, Aleksandr Govor, that gave him the global fast-food giant's entire restaurant portfolio in the country and allowed him to operate the restaurants under a new brand.
But Kazakhstan is not the only country where Boranbaev owns a local McDonald's franchise. He also co-owns the chain's franchise in Belarus through the Belarusian company KSB Victory Restaurants.
There, as in Kazakhstan, there were reports of an imminent Tasty and That's It takeover of restaurants formerly part of the McDonald's franchise. Yet there, too, the restaurants rebranded with the same "We are open" sign, featuring the yellow "M," in November 2022.
Astana-based blogger Yerlan Sakenov pointed this similarity out in a January 23 post on Telegram, in which he speculated that this may well be as far as the renaming experiment goes.
"It [already] sounds like a brand," Sakenov wrote.