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 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 gastro pub 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 sanitizer 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 unappetizing 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.
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 sanitizer.”