By Daniel Michaels, Rick Tetzeli, Justin Martin, Allison McCormick

(FORTUNE Magazine) – -- From the Baltic to the Black Sea, Eastern Europeans are loading up on merchandise bearing U.S. brand names like Kodak, Kellogg's, Band-Aids, Rice-a- Roni, SlimFast, and Purina Cat Chow. Warsaw street scenes include tram stops that carry ads for Campbell's condensed soups. The U.S. Commerce Department estimates that U.S. exports to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria rose an estimated 25% in 1992 over 1991, to about $1.5 billion. A big battle currently being fought on billboards and TV ads pitches PepsiCo, the current champ of the cola market, against Coca-Cola. Meanwhile, Pepsi's restaurants (two Pizza Huts, in Warsaw and Budapest, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Budapest) are chasing McDonald's outlets (15, including two in Warsaw). Campbell exports to the area. Still others, including Levi Strauss, have built and run their own Eastern Europe factories.Daniel Michaels

HUNGARIAN ENTREE Individual U.S. investors have a chance to invest in a former Eastern European company, as opposed to a country stock fund. Fotex, Hungary's leading retailer, is being traded over the counter via American depositary receipts, or ADRs. Buying into Eastern Europe is otherwise essentially restricted to the purchase of country funds. Worried about Fotex's bookkeeping? Says CEO Gabor Varszegi, 48: ''Trading in New York means we have to supply the most accurate information possible to shareholders, which is a most important step for Eastern European companies.'' Varszegi, previously manager and bass guitarist for Gemini, a Budapest rock band, founded the company in 1984 as a photo-processing service, a business it still is in. But Fotex now operates 374 stores, most specializing in quality products like Bausch & Lomb Ray-Bans, Revlon cosmetics, Eastman Kodak film, Gillette shavers, and more. It also makes high-quality crystal under licenses from Waterford and Tiffany. Customers are mainly rich Hungarians and tourists, a base Varszegi wants to foster. To keep service standards high, Fotex hires young people, works them 12 hours a day -- and pays them about $530 a month, which is three times the going rate. -- R.T.

PASSION PLAYS Bodice rippers, as romance novels are known in the trade, have found new fans. Readers in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland will buy 30 million Harlequin books in 1993, according to parent Torstar of Toronto, which is shooting for 40 million in 1995. Harlequin plans to start selling in Romania in 1994. Best-sellers include Not at Eight, Darling, by Sherryl Woods (or V Osm Ne, Milacku, by Sheryl Woodsova, in Czech). The plot: Barrie MacDonald, a television producer, clashes with an exec over her show but gradually grows fond of him. Woods, 48, a resident of Key Biscayne, Florida, and author of more than 20 Harlequin romances, is proud to be reaching readers in the former communist bloc. Says she: ''They want anything that will put them in touch with the experience they've been denied for so long.''

Will business books be far behind? Peter Kaufman, president of Pubwatch, a New York City nonprofit information service for publishers in Eastern Europe, says, ''The people would inhale'' nuts-and-bolts texts on accounting, finance, marketing, and how to write a business plan. -- Justin Martin

GOOD CAREER MOVE? Some 5,000 jobless Brits, the victims of layoffs in the management ranks of investment banks, meatpackers, and other companies, have signed on with Reaction, a philanthropic group. The outfit has put together a barge, ship, and rail convoy to deliver publicly donated blankets, canned food, and medical supplies to war-torn Yugoslavia. Besides giving participants a chance to help others, running the convoy helped members plug empty spots on their resumes. They collected goods in Britain, supervised shipments, and kept inventory controls. Some also made the 12-day trip to the cities of Split and Krk to oversee the dispersal of the cargo. (A c.v. might read: ''Experienced in managing Serb-speaking workers.'') Among those who went to Yugoslavia: Andrew Stephenson, 37, who lost his job as a manager at a security company in the northern city of Leeds last June. Reaction plans more rescue efforts and is looking to globalize, starting with the U.S. The group will try to sign up unemployed Yanks in 1993. -- Allison McCormick