An iconic fast-food chain which traces its roots back to Lethbridge more than six decades ago is the subject of a documentary premiering this spring at a prestigious film festival.
The Lebanese Burger Mafia is billed in part as a “meaty saga of a rogue fast-food chain with mysterious origins, a cult following and a secret pathway to the immigrant dream.”
Writer/director/narrator Omar Mouallem provides a look from inside the Burger Baron family in a feature-length film which opens May 3 at the Hot Docs Festival 2023 in Toronto.
Mouallem, whose family opened a Burger Baron in High Prairie in 1987, has a couple of theories on why the restaurant became such an institution over the years, especially in rural Alberta.
“I think people love the nostalgia factor of it. It’s something that has just been there for the majority of Albertans’ lives,” he says, noting the lack of refinement or common standards among the restaurants may have added to the allure. “It is sort of the ‘anti chain, chain restaurant’ and that I think is a big appeal because there’s something charming about that and quirky about that. People are willing to eat there even if it’s not going to be consistent, even if they might not have a good meal, because it piques their interest.”
Despite later claims of its origins by the Lebanese side of the business, Burger Baron was actually conceived in 1957 by a Montana entrepreneur who hoped to rival the explosion of the McDonald’s restaurant chain north of the border. The first Burger Baron opened in Calgary, with a second following on its heels in Lethbridge. By 1960 there were more than 30 Burger Baron franchises in eight provinces and states, but just a year later the chain became a victim of its own meteoric rise and owner Jack McDonnell declared bankruptcy.
The orphaned brand would be appropriated by a Lebanese immigrant, who in turn would invite countrymen to set up Burger Baron outlets in other locations with no franchise fees or other commitments. At the height of its success, Burger Baron was an international brand with more than 100 locations in 11 provinces and states in its history, and even one in Lebanon.
Over the years southern Albertans could enjoy the signature Mushroom Burger and a wide variety of other menu items at Burger Barons locations in Lethbridge, Claresholm and Coaldale.
Raymond boasts one of the 25 Burger Barons still remaining, all in Alberta with the exception of one B.C. restaurant, and all run independently by Lebanese owners/operators.
The Lebanese Burger Mafia expands on Mouallem’s earlier short documentary, The Last Baron. When making that first film he assumed the audience would consist largely of nostalgic Albertans with a fondness for the fast-food institution.
“But what I found was that it really transcended that and resonated with people who like a good mystery, and people like me who are very affected by immigrant stories and find them inspiring and touching,” he says.
The first film was also popular with the Arab and Lebanese diaspora, and foodies. The latter, Mouallem says, may be Food Network aficionados who have grown tired of shows about upscale dining and innovative cooking techniques and appreciate the story of “humble, relatable food that we all know and love.”
Lethbridge features prominently in the story of Burger Baron and the feature film. Not only was it one of the first restaurants McDonnell opened, he says Sal Kemaleddine (note, there a many spelling variations of this family name) passed himself off for years as the founder of Burger Baron and even created a new origin story where Lethbridge was the first born of the restaurants.
Sal did re-open the Lethbridge location in the 80s, about a decade after the earlier restaurant had closed, before it too closed its doors more recently. In 1999 he also opened the Coaldale Burger Baron, which has also since closed.
Mouallem reached out to Sal first, in belief of his version of the story, while doing research for an article on the history of Burger Baron which would inspire his later, short documentary. As a teenager he was introduced to Sal while attending a relative’s graduation from the University of Lethbridge.
“When he caught my name and where I was from, he said: ‘Your dad owns the Burger Baron there’ and, ‘You know, I started the Burger Baron and I never gave your dad permission to open one.’ That stuck in my head for years,” he says.
It was only in talking with Sal years later while doing research for that article that Mouallem detected inconsistencies in his version of the Burger Baron history, realized he wasn’t the founder nor did he create the recipe for the celebrated Mushroom Burger sauce, ‘complete with Lebanese spices.’
The Raymond Burger Baron, meanwhile, is also featured in The Lebanese Burger Mafia. That outlet was run for years by Maher Kamaledinne, who immigrated to Canada in 1976 with some 20 of his Lebanese relatives, all of whom ended up as members of the extended Burger Baron family.
“If there was ever a turning point for the ‘franchise that’s not a franchise,’ it was that,” he says.
While the Lebanese element of the Burger Baron story was first introduced in 1965, it really took root in 1976 and proliferated and prospered until the early 90s, a time span which mirrors the Lebanese civil war. Mouallem says those fleeing Lebanon found a safer landing spot in Canada, but options for work here were very limited. Burger Baron restaurants were an easy way to get into a sustainable business, one that they could be mentored into, and most importantly, one where each could be their own boss and run things as they wished.
Maher just recently retired and the Raymond Burger Baron is being run by two brothers in their 30s, Rawad and Rabah Echtay. The filmmaker found that particularly notable in that it’s rare to see the younger generation joining the Burger Baron family at this point. In fact, in his estimation it’s a major factor to the restaurant’s gradual disappearance from the prairie scene.
Mouallem says there’s a sort of “wistful sadness” in the winding down of the Burger Baron story.
“The reason they’re disappearing is not actually a sad reason… it’s a victim of its own success. Burger Baron was adopted by immigrants to create generational wealth and for their next of kin to avail better and more sustainable professions and a brighter future,” he says. “And it’s done that.”
Today, members of the Burger Baron family are lawyers, aldermen, real estate developers, professional wrestlers and yes, even film makers.
Southern Albertans looking to reconnect with their memories of Burger Baron, can take part in the world premiere from home. There are opportunities to watch The Lebanese Burger Mafia via live stream with ticket information available at https://hotdocs.ca/whats-on/hot-docs-festival/films/2023/lebanese-burger-mafia
By Craig Albrecht, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Apr 24, 2023