Andrei Kirilenko, the National Basketball Association player known as AK-47, is defying Russian antipathy toward U.S. brands by opening the country’s first Hooters restaurant.
Kirilenko, who plays for billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s Brooklyn Nets, said the first of five restaurants he plans to build in Moscow will open April 28 under a franchisee agreement with Hooters of America Inc., the chain best known for the skimpy tank tops worn by its waitresses.
McDonald’s Corp. this month closed its restaurants in Crimea, citing supply problems, a move seen as a snub in Russia for its annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula, which prompted U.S. sanctions. The deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, called for protests to drive the Big Mac maker out of the country, a campaign backed by 62 percent of Russians, according to a poll by SuperJob’s Research Center.
“What do politics have to do with a sports bar?” Kirilenko, 33, said by phone from New York. The Nets will begin the NBA playoffs this weekend.
“Russians and Americans are more alike than different -- huge sports fans who are looking for great food and good times,” Kirilenko said. “When you’ve got waitresses that look like ours, it’s a slam dunk.’
Kirilenko spends his summers in Russia and is a native of Izhevsk in the Ural Mountains, where the inventor of the AK-47 automatic rifle, Mikhail Kalashnikov, died last year.
In 1999, at the age of 18, Kirilenko became the youngest European taken in the NBA draft at the time when the Utah Jazz picked him in the first round. He opted to remain with CSKA Moscow for two seasons before joining the Jazz in 2001.
Kirilenko, an NBA All-Star in 2004, turned down a $10 million contract last year to stay with the Minnesota Timberwolves, opting instead for a $6.3 million, two-year deal with the Nets. He missed almost half of this season’s games due to injuries.
Now Kirilenko is helping closely held Hooters embark on the biggest expansion in the Atlanta-based company’s 23-year history, according to Andre Thome, head of market development in Europe. The company plans to open 19 restaurants outside the U.S. this year, including in Moscow and Phuket, Thailand, Thome said by phone from Prague. Hooters now has about 350 locations in the U.S. and about 60 around the world.
Muscovites have been getting their taste of American food since 1990, when McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in the Soviet Union. A spokeswoman for the company, Nina Prasolova, declined to comment on the poll or Zhirinovsky’s protests.
While McDonald’s now has 420 restaurants across Russia and Shake Shack, Burger King Worldwide Inc., Subway Restaurants and Yum! Brands Inc. have all entered the market, the country still has only one restaurant per 930 people, versus one per 150 in the U.S., according to data compiled by the Moscow-based Business Analytica research company.
Revenue in Russia’s food-service market is forecast to grow 5 percent this year to $20.1 billion, according to Euromonitor International. That’s about $140 per capita, compared with more than $1,000 in western Europe and more than $1,500 in the U.S., data from the London-based researcher show.
With Russia’s economy on the brink of recession, according to HSBC Holdings Plc, not all chains have been thriving. Chili’s Grill & Bar last year closed its flagship Moscow restaurant less than three years after it opened. Ashley Johnson, a spokeswoman for Chili’s owner Brinker International in Dallas, declined to comment by phone.
The Chili’s venue, on Novy Arbat, will soon reopen as a Burger King, one of about 60 in the city, according to the company’s Russian website. Burger King’s Russian unit, part-owned by state-run investment bank VTB Capital, has opened six restaurants this month.
Dmitry Medoviy, CEO of Burger King Russia, told Itar-Tass news service on April 9 that he plans to expand into Crimea. A spokesman for Burger King in the U.S., Bryson Thornton, denied that report in an e-mailed statement.
Hooters’ Thome said his company has an advantage over other chains because its global franchisees don’t have to import a lot of expensive proprietary products.
‘‘We adapt culturally to all the markets we work in,” Thome said. “In many places, that means our customers look to us for mid- to high-end dining rather than a spot on the bench to drink beer and eat wings.”
Andrey Gomilin, director of the first Hooters venue in Moscow, which will be located near the former headquarters of the KGB, said it will be able to seat 169 people. The restaurant has 40 flat-screen televisions that will show U.S. and Russian sporting events, and an in-house store will sell Hooters merchandise such as T-shirts, hats and calendars, Gomilin said.
Hooters is hiring as many as 80 waitresses for the restaurant and has already sent five members of the new staff to St. Louis and Atlanta for training, Gomilin said.
Irina Shayk, the girlfriend of Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo and the cover model for Sport Illustrated’s swimsuit issue in 2011, agreed to work as a waitress at the Moscow Hooters for a week after it opens, according to the restaurant’s Facebook page.
While many Russians are aware of the Hooters brand from Hollywood films, the biggest challenge will be overcoming the notion “that it’s a strip bar,” Kirilenko said.