By Nimra Amir, September 25 2023—
To unexpected visitors, the Burger Baron might seem like the average restaurant, but heir of a Burger Baron franchise, Omar Mouallem, in his feature documentary The Lebanese Burger Mafia — screening at the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) on Sept. 23 and 26 — reveals the Burger Baron franchise to be a rogue fast-food chain with a cult following.
It was 1957 when in hopes of creating the McDonalds of Canada that Jack McDonnell and brothers Dick and Mandy opened a Burger Baron in Calgary. Since then, there have been up to 90 of these restaurants, but not all are owned by Jack McDonnell and brothers Dick and Mandy. After 1965 — a few years after the Burger Baron franchise went bankrupt — Lebanese immigrant Riad “Rudy” Kemaldean bought a Burger Baron in Edmonton. For 58 years, the Burger Baron franchise had been copied not only by other Burger Baron owners like relatives of Kemaldean but also by other Burger Baron knock-off restaurateurs like Angel’s Drive-In in Calgary and Burger Palace in Olds. Both of which also happen to be Lebanese-owned.
“You will find Lebanese families living in almost every town in Alberta. One of the reasons for that, and maybe the biggest reason for that, is because of Burger Baron and the restaurants it inspired. I mean, you reach a point in the early 90s where there are 50 Burger Barons across rural Alberta owned by Lebanese families,” Mouallem said. “Burger Baron became the Lebanese version of the small-town Chinese restaurant. Every small town in North America will have a Chinese restaurant that at least started with a Chinese immigrant family.”
Zouhier Kamaleddine, who owns a Burger Baron in Carstairs, had compared the Burger Baron franchise to the Mafia, but that would mean the Burger Baron franchise would be organized — when in reality, no Burger Baron owner or Burger Baron knock-off restaurateur even knows who the original Baron is.
It was 2013 when Mouallem confronted this mystery of the Burger Baron franchise in “Will The Real Burger Baron Please Stand Up?” for Swerve Magazine. Then almost a decade later, Mouallem was given the opportunity to turn “Will The Real Burger Baron Please Stand Up?” into the short film The Last Baron and months later, turn The Last Baron into The Lebanese Burger Mafia.
“The movie would not exist without the article,” he said.
It is important that films like The Lebanese Burger Mafia, as silly as they might seem, exist though — to appreciate one of the many ways that immigrants and refugees have left a cultural influence on Alberta, like Mouallem’s parents who own a Burger Baron franchise with its own cult following.
“[My parents] underestimated how much Burger Baron meant to not just our Lebanese community but to the Alberta communities where it existed. It is nice to create this piece that gives my parents their flowers but also gives all the Barons their flowers that they deserve. Especially Rudy Kemaldean — the godfather of the Burger Baron,” Mouallem said.
To buy tickets for The Lebanese Burger Mafia, visit the CIFF website.