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BRAND WATCH - While McDonald's looks set to open its biggest store to date in the US, and that's no joke, it's ready to be usurped by a cabbage soup chain in the former USSR, while in London a skinny muffin fight has broken out for control of Coffee Republic, writes Jennifer Whitehead in this week's round-up of brand news.

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While McDonald's plans to open its biggest US restaurant in New York's Times Square, expansion plans in Belarus don't appear to be going so well. The president of the former Soviet state, Aleksandr Lukashenka, is reported to be clamping down on McDonald's and planning a chain of cabbage soup and sausage restaurants.

The Belarusian government has said that McDonald's should not be able to buy more property in Minsk because its products are a threat to the nation's health and to Belarusian traditions.

However, McDonald's in Hong Kong is trying to become more traditional by introducing McRice to its menu. The chain is trying to compete with other local restaurant chains serving more traditional Hong Kong fare than burgers and chips. The move has not gone down well with some of the smaller eateries in the territory, especially those located near McDonald's outlets.

But it might not all be over -- a food critic has deemed that McDonald's rice dishes are not up to the standards of local restaurants, but said that the chicken was good. However, with the low prices McDonald's is offering, the chain is expected to make inroads.

From fast-food wars to coffee wars. Coffee Republic was in the middle of a bidding war this week, as Greek entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou looked at expanding his Easy empire into caffeine, and downmarket sandwich chain Benjys said it was interested in buying to compete with Pret-a-Manger.

Rival coffee chain Caffe Nero has also been building its stake in the company, with a 10.7% holding.

Stelios has said that if it does not win the battle for Coffee Republic, he will look at buying other coffee chains -- despite the problems that his Easy Internet Cafe has had.

The Italians may have given us the coffee bar, as well as pasta and pizza, but now they want to make sure the rest of the world is doing the right thing with its culinary heritage.

The Italian government is to set up an agency to investigate Italian restaurants around the world, and make sure that the menus are authentic and that they use genuine Italian ingredients.

"We are dealing with very dirty competition on the issue of Italian restaurants," the Italian agriculture minister is reported to have told a youth rally.

Back in the UK, Fortnum & Mason, supplier of fine food to Her Majesty the Queen, is threatening to bring its retail practices kicking and screaming into the 1990s and start trading on Sundays.

The store has not opened its doors on a Sunday since it was founded in 1707, and is now facing a financial crisis.

In response to falling sales, Fortnum is said to be freezing wages and introducing performance-related bonuses for staff. The news came in a letter leaked from Fortnum's chairman, Jana Khayat, to staff.

Marketers at tobacco companies will be once again looking at their options, as the end of tobacco sponsorship drew closer this week with legislation due to pass by the end of summer that will ban nearly all advertising and sponsorship.

On the way out are products such as clothing and watches -- in fact any non-tobacco products "used in connection with a tobacco product, if the purpose is to promote a tobacco product or has the effect of doing so".

It also expected to increase pressure on Hollywood to end its relationship with tobacco brands, which sees firms such as Philip Morris pay for stars to appear in films smoking their cigarettes.

It may be recognised the world over, but Coca-Cola is planning a face-lift for its packaging, with plans to modernise the graphic design. It plans to make its "dynamic ribbon" more prominent on the packaging of Coca-Cola Classic. The new packaging will appear in 2003.

Finally, another product that is aimed at a youthful audience was drawing the wrath of such moderate thinkers as Ann Widdecombe and the Daily Mail.

Hemp Vodka is a new drink that combines cannabis and vodka, imported from the Czech Republic. It is a triple-distilled vodka containing cannabis seeds, which are not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Promoted by slogans such as "the highest spirit on the shelf", the drink is reported to be selling well. Widdecombe is one politician who is supporting a move to get the product banned, saying: "The world really is going mad. I simply cannot believe that such a dangerous cocktail targeted at young people is legal."

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