Eastern Europe Gets All Shook Up Over American-Style Diners

American diners shake up eastern Europe
American diners shake up eastern Europe

The world's fourth Elvis-themed restaurant is scheduled to open in a mall in Georgia this year. That's the Republic of Georgia, the former Soviet state wedged between the Black and Caspian seas in Central Asia.

"Georgia was under a communist regime for 72 years," says Amir Yoeli, the general manager of Elvis American Diner, the Georgian-Israeli company which owns all four of the world's Elvis-themed restaurants. "People here skipped the '50s and '60s. It's something they're thirsty for."

The flagship Elvis American Diner in Georgia's capital of Tbilisi quenches that thirst, and satiates appetites with everything from burgers and pizza to pasta and deli sandwiches. (In a break with the theme, Thai food and sushi are also available.) Located in the newly renovated state concert hall, the restaurant is adorned with black vinyl booths and Elvis kitsch of all kinds: mosaics, statues and photographs. On concert days, impersonators of the King greet customers with swagger.

Like most of the rest of the world, the former Soviet states succumbed to the fast-food invasion long ago. In Tbilisi, McDonald's (MCD) has been open since 1999, and other American-style restaurants such as Texas Fried Chicken, New York Burger, and Ronny's American Pizza currently operate.

But Elvis American Diner isn't a fast food joint -- it's a diner. While neither of the two Tbilisi locations are actually contained in stainless steel dining cars, they are good approximations. Dishes are made to order, and are reportedly of better quality than McDonald's. (They are also, according to one blogger, a bit expensive for Tbilisi.) People sit down at booths, eat with silverware and listen to oldies on jukeboxes.

It's not just food, Yoeli says. "It's a cultural experience."

Americana, Brand of Opportunity

Diners are a cultural experience ripe for exportation. The U.K., Ireland, France, Germany and India already have American-style diners, though some of these are frequented mostly by tourists and expats.

In the former Soviet bloc, diners appeal to an expanding middle class with a renowned appetite for fast food. T.G.I. Fridays, with locations in Poland, Belarus, Latvia, the Ukraine and Russia, has had the Americana schtick nailed the longest. Last year, '50s-style restaurant chain Johnny Rockets announced that it will open 40 stores in Russia, the chain's first franchises in Europe.

Locally owned American diners are also popping up all over Moscow. Some occupy actual former railroad dining cars, imported from companies in the U.S. who resell old diners or manufacture new ones.

There are even diner advisers: Moscow's Great American Diner Company helps new diners get started with branding and franchising, promising to "import and install the pre-fabricated diner-style restaurant ... using our exclusive relationships with experienced designers and manufacturers."

King of the Franchise

Elvis American Diner is the first of its kind in Georgia or nearby Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its roots, however, are in Jerusalem, where Amir Yoeli's father, Yuri, opened the first Elvis American Diner 36 years ago. The company's 2009 move to Tbilisi was in part a test to see if the restaurant's concept could be exported and ultimately, franchised.

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"It's worked really, really well so far," says Yoeli. According to an IMF report on the country, Georgia's economy has been growing ever since its independence in 1991. Though it suffered economically during its 2008 conflict with Russia, foreign direct investment is now on a rise as more business owners realize that -- outside of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- the country is stable.

This July, Elvis American Diners reached an agreement with Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis to license Elvis' name and likeness in 33 Eastern European and Central Asian countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic, the Ukraine, Greece, Turkey and Russia. Deals are currently in the works with franchisers in Armenia and Kazakhstan.

Even if Elvis American Diners soon meets competition from Russian restaurateurs, Yoeli is confident that his concept is unique enough to survive. "Elvis is the main issue in our restaurant," he says. "He's an icon. He brings back the memories of nice times."

Of course, 60 years ago when Elvis was first gyrating on The Ed Sullivan show, his records and movies were banned in Georgia and in most of the other countries where the Yoeli's chain hopes to expand. Bits of the legend and Elvis' music seeped through the Iron Curtain only via the black market. In 1957, the New York Times reported on an Elvis Presley frenzy in Leningrad, where his records sold for $12.50 a copy (a very high price at the time).

Now, Georgians can hear his songs online anytime. Or on the Elvis American Diner jukebox, if they're in the mood to remember the '50s like they weren't.