MOSCOW — When you enter a home in Moscow, you take off your shoes. When you go to a play, you have to check your coat. When you eat a burger, you often wear gloves.
Across hygiene-conscious Eastern Europe, many people consider it uncouth and unsanitary to eat a burger with their bare hands. The answer used to be a knife and fork. But the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated a years-old trend: order a burger from Kyiv, Ukraine, to Kamchatka — or in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn — and there is a fair chance it will come with a side of disposable gloves.
Most often, the gloves are made of a synthetic, latex-free rubber called nitrile. At Black Star Burger, which launched the phenomenon in Moscow in 2016, the gloves on offer are black, individually wrapped in plastic packets. At Star Burger in Kyiv, they are green (or pink on Valentine’s Day). At Butterbro, a gastropub in Minsk, Belarus, they come wrapped discreetly inside a napkin next to a serving dish made of the trunk of an ash tree.
“Gloves, I think, are an unspoken, required attribute of any burger restaurant,” said Butterbro’s manager, Alina Volkolovskaya. “I’m surprised that establishments in every country don’t offer them.”
To visiting Americans, the practice always seemed odd, bordering on blasphemous. But when Moscow’s lockdown ended this month and I went out to celebrate, nervously, with a cheeseburger to go, it suddenly kind of made sense.
I found a bench in the sun along a just-reopened boulevard promenade, unwrapped and balanced the burger on my lap, disgorged some hand sanitiser and rubbed vigorously. Then, imagining bits of virus still clinging to my hands, I for the first time pulled on those black nitrile gloves.
“I don’t want to say I’m a genius,” Black Star Burger’s founder, Yuri Levitas, later told me, “but this really is a very convenient, practical thing.”
In truth, the longer you eat, the weirder it feels. Your hands sweat, the sauce stuck on the gloves cools unpleasantly, and licking your fingers becomes an increasingly unappetising proposition. I called George Motz, a New York hamburger specialist, and he insisted that gloves negate the “very tactile experience” of eating a burger.
“Take the gloves off and get closer to your burger!” Motz said. “Part of the bite is the way you feel and touch it: You can feel the bun; you can feel the heat; you have a connection with what you’re about to taste.”
Several US restaurant safety experts, however, were intrigued, having never heard of establishments providing diners with disposable gloves. They doubted the practice would take off in the United States — the coronavirus, after all, is not even known to spread through food — but some said that gloves used properly could help protect people who don’t wash their hands from a variety of germs.
“They could be potentially beneficial,” said Robert Williams, an associate professor of food microbiology at Virginia Tech, “in cases where the customer would not have washed their hands anyway.”
In Moscow, where the mayor ordered residents to wear gloves this spring as a coronavirus-mitigation measure, the number of restaurants serving burgers the American way is dwindling. The BB & Burgers chain serves them wrapped in parchment and sliced in half but is likely to start providing guests with gloves as well, a spokeswoman said.
“We continue to believe that when you eat a burger, you should hold it with your hands and feel how the sauce sometimes flows down your hands,” said Valentin Mitrofanov, marketing director at the Burger Heroes chain. “But given the pandemic, some changes may of course have to be made.”
Vanity, not health concerns, first propelled Eastern Europe’s gloves-and-burgers fad. Levitas of Black Star Burger recruited Timati, a Russian rap star close to the Kremlin, to lend a celebrity cachet to his new burger chain, which now has 67 locations across the former Soviet Union and one in Los Angeles.
Timati touted the black gloves as Black Star Burger’s “most important know-how” on his Instagram feed, amid the photos of surfboards and private jets.
“Your hands won’t smell of burger,” he told his millions of followers when the first location opened in 2016.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal Chechen strongman, followed up with a black-gloved Instagram testimonial of his own about the burger’s juiciness. The gloves help Black Star’s customers feel special, Levitas said, like the sparklers that go off when waiters bring out the $11 “VIP” burger.
The gloves proved impervious to politics. A Kyiv restaurateur, Gennady Medvedev, said he had the idea to serve gloves with burgers independently of Black Star Burger in the years after he opened his Star Burger chain in the Ukrainian capital in early 2014 — during his country’s anti-Vladimir Putin revolution.
“I don’t like to eat with my hands, especially burgers,” Medvedev said. “It was a way to broaden our audience to people like me who eat with a knife and fork.”
The trend took off behind the former Iron Curtain as fancy burger places popped up in a region unfamiliar with the dish before McDonald’s arrived in the 1990s. Alexander Monaenkov, a Moscow-born burger-bar owner in Prague, said he handed out gloves to evoke the refinement of white-gloved waiters in Michelin-star restaurants. Corina Enciu, a Moldovan-born restaurateur in Krakow, Poland, said she introduced gloves because her burger joint lacked a place for people to wash their hands.
“Now, with the coronavirus, this will be even more in demand,” Enciu said. “People are afraid of this virus, and they will always use either gloves or hand sanitiser.”
Gera Wise, a Kyiv-born cafe and nightclub owner in the Russian-speaking Brooklyn neighbourhood of Brighton Beach, said his customers started asking for gloves after Timati started modelling them.
Soon he had his waiters offering black gloves to anyone who ordered a burger. On weekend nights before the pandemic, Wise recalled, they were the perfect companion to the Russian rap blaring from the speakers.
“It’s awesome to sit here, in gloves, eat burgers, see all this and be seen,” Wise said. “You feel like you’re in Moscow.”
Motz, the burger expert, said he had only heard of burger places providing gloves in Poland and Russia. He doubts it will catch on in the United States even with heightened hygiene concerns because “Americans take their burger culture way too seriously.”
Indeed, Williams of Virginia Tech said the concept of providing gloves to diners has not come up in any of his countless conversations with restaurants about adjusting to the pandemic.
Gloves are not necessarily more hygienic than good hand-washing, the scholars noted, and they create waste. The process of restaurant staff repackaging the gloves and giving them to the customers represents another pathway by which germs can spread. People transmit the coronavirus mainly through the air, and the US. Food and Drug Administration said there is no evidence of the virus spreading through food or food packaging.
“What I don’t want people to do is to be so paranoid about eating with gloves,” Donald Schaffner, a professor of food science at Rutgers, said, “that they forget that the overwhelming majority of the risk comes from other people.”
But Isaac Correa, a Puerto Rico-born chef who lived in Moscow for two decades, thinks the gloves-and-burgers concept could have a global future. Correa worked with Medvedev in Kyiv to start the Star Burger chain. He first thought that eating burgers in gloves was “hilarious,” he said, but then he realised it made sense in a culture that values cleanliness and frowns on eating with one’s hands.
Now Correa runs a restaurant in Sarasota, Florida, and his diners hesitate to touch menus or come inside to collect takeout orders.
“I could see some of my customers in a casual restaurant say, ‘Hey, look, I’m going to try this,’” Correa said of eating in gloves. “But if I speak for myself, I still want to put my hands on that burger.”