Illyria / September 29, 1995
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- More than 40 years after he fled the land of his birth, Ekrem Bardha may finally see his dream come true. Bardha, the owner of 13 McDonald's restaurants in the Detroit area, wants to see the Golden Arches tower over Tiranė as well.
Last week, the Albanian-American businessman received good news: a fax from the chain's European headquarters in Vienna granting him permission to establish a McDonald's restaurant in Albania.
"I applied a long time ago and they told me I was crazy," Bardha told Illyria, explaining that the Communist regimes of Enver Hoxha and Ramiz Alia, then fears of a spreading Balkan conflict, had kept McDonald's away from Europe's poorest country for years. "Now they feel it's stable and secure."
Bardha escaped from Albania in 1953 after one of his brothers was jailed for political crimes. He eventually settled in Detroit and went into the restaurant business; the entrepreneur has been with McDonald's 21 years now.
In a speech last week before 100 executives gathered for a conference on Albanian economic opportunities, Bardha said he began investing in Albania immediately after it began emerging from its self-imposed isolation in 1991.
"I did so out of love for the country where I was born, hoping to set an example for other Albanians," he said. "Today I know that commerce with and investments in Albania pay off profitably. Many American multinationals go to Asia and elsewhere in search of cheap labor. Why go so far when skilled workers in Albania -- the heart of Europe -- work for about one-tenth of normal wages?"
Bardha added, however, that "the Albanian government must pass laws promoting foreign investment. It also needs to follow America's example and declare war on bureaucracy. The infusion of capital into these and other ventures will provide employment for the Albanian workforce and profits for investors. It will also strengthen the bonds of friendship between our two countries."
Bardha agrees that the very idea of a McDonald's in Albania was a joke five years ago, when the country was still ruled by Marxists and democracy was a dirty word. But today, the Golden Arches -- the ultimate symbol of American consumerism -- are eagerly awaited by both government officials and the Albanian people, who Bardha says "will sacrifice something else in order to eat at McDonald's."
Unlike other businessmen who only talk, Bardha has already invested in his homeland. In March 1994, after spending about $700,000 in renovation costs, he and his daughter Donika opened La Piazza, an elegant Italian restaurant located on Rruga Ded Gjon Luli, right off downtown Skanderbeg Square. The restaurant, which has about 80 employees, is popular with foreign diplomats, international aid workers and wealthy Albanian businessmen.
"Our intent all along was to establish an upscale restaurant in Tiranė," said Donika, who runs La Piazza's day-to-day affairs. "It had been a state-owned restaurant in disrepair. We started the business as a joint venture with the government, but then the laws changed and we became 100% private."
La Piazza boasts shining marble floors, silverware from Italy and a copy of the latest issue of Vanity Fair for restaurant patrons. Guests are entertained with CDs during the day and live music at night; a piano bar is about to open as well.
Items on the menu at La Piazza range from smoked salmon with lemon and toast (700 lekė) to house antipasto (300 lekė) and linguini with pesto and tomato sauce (500 lekė) -- all prepared by Italian chef Franco Carlucci. Also on the menu is a fresh fish dinner for 2,800 lekė, about a month's salary for the average Albanian worker. Busboys at La Piazza, incidentally, must be fluent in Italian and English; even members of the kitchen staff must know some Italian in order to communicate with Carlucci.
"We have been very happy with our staff," Donika Bardha said. "There are some things that are different, such as the notion of equal work for equal pay. I can't expect them to have an American mentality after living all these years under Communism."
Opening a McDonald's in Tiranė will require an investment of at least $1 million, says Bardha, whose 13 Detroit-area restaurants gross about $25 million a year. The first outlet will be located next to the Hotel Dajti in downtown Tiranė, and could be opened by mid-1997 -- grossing $2 million in sales during the first year alone.
"It's going to be an institution," predicts Bardha, adding that Tiranė could probably support five McDonald's restaurants -- given the fact that "wages are going up, there are 45 foreign embassies and Tiranė has close to half a million people."
The restauranteur says he'll do his best to keep prices low. A Big Mac would cost around 175 lekė, french fries, 65 lekė, and a cup of coffee, 50 lekė. Wages for the restaurant's 100 or so employees would be "much better than average," he promises.
So will the quality, he says, explaining that McDonald's restaurants have very strict standards which must be met regardless of where the outlet is located. While tomatoes and onions will be sourced from local farmers, for the time being, Bardha says he'll import meat from France and potatoes from Idaho.
If in fact McDonald's does set up in Albania's capital city, it will join other cafes around town, including the Café American, Hambo's and Hard Rock Tirana -- which has nothing to do with the real Hard Rock chain which began in London and today boasts more than two dozen outlets around the world. And it's only a matter of time before other fast-food chains like Burger King, Pizza Hut and KFC discover Albania as well.
"Albania is a land of opportunity, but the longer you wait, the less opportunity there will be," said Bardha. "They need a person like myself who is financially sound and has the means to be successful. There are going to be some obstacles, but if I do well, so will the competition."