Somewhere along Macleod Trail in 1957, an ambitious Irish-American businessman named Jack McDonnell opened one of the first two Burger Baron locations in Calgary.
Known for its iconic mushroom burgers, the storied franchise with a cult following is a staple for those who grew up in this province.
That loyalty exists despite the fact that there seems to be no consistency among the remaining 25 Burger Baron locations in Alberta.
The logos of the different locations are conceptually similar, featuring a cartoon baron brandishing a spike and shield, but some are dressed in red, others in blue, black or lime green. All of them are drawn differently.
Just some of the many variations of the Burger Baron mascot, copied and distorted over time. (Supplied/Omar Mouallem)
Menu items, aside from the mushroom burger, vary from one branch to the next; some locations have donairs, some have pizzas, some have spring rolls — and some don't.
None of the owners of the Burger Baron franchises pay a franchise fee.
But the one thing the locations do have in common is that they are almost all run by Lebanese-Canadians.
It's that history, and a familial connection, that drove filmmaker Omar Mouallem to start investigating Burger Barons about a decade ago; eventually turning that investigation into The Lebanese Burger Mafia — a documentary film he said has been surprisingly successful.
"I had a lot of unanswered questions about it," he said.
"How was it that my family was able to run this chain restaurant, this franchise of a chain restaurant, but as far as I know, we didn't do anything that the other restaurants did?"
Terry Abilmona, who appears in the documentary The Lebanese Burger Mafia, stands in front of his Burger Baron in ᒪᐢᑿᒌᐢ (Maskwacis, Alta.) which caters to locals with bannock burgers and an Indigenous gift shop. (Supplied/Omar Mouallem)
The feature documentary explores the unique and mysterious history of Burger Baron, while highlighting the cultural contributions of the Lebanese and Arab community to Alberta.
It made its CIFF debut on Sept. 23 and will be shown again on Sept. 26, marking a return of sorts for the restaurant to the city it was partially founded in.
Rooted in family
Soon after he was born, Mouallem's family moved from Slave Lake, Alta., to High Prairie, where his father was going to open a restaurant called Prairie Pizza and Steak.
But his great-uncle convinced his father otherwise.
"He kind of said to him, 'Do yourself a favour, the name Burger Baron has a great reputation, people know it, they trust it.… Do whatever you were going to do, but call it a Burger Baron.'"
A Burger Baron in Aley, Lebanon, was closed and reopened as a butcher shop with the same name. (Supplied/Omar Mouallem)
Mouallem's investigative quest began in 2013 when, as a freelance journalist, he wrote an article for the now-defunct magazine Swerve titled "Will the real Burger Baron please stand up?"
The article had a wide reach, making its way into the hands of Jamal Kemaldean, a Burger Baron owner and the son of the man who revived the chain into what it is today — a rogue and disjointed series of restaurants run predominantly by Lebanese-Canadians and immigrants.
"I just remember being really intrigued, even at that point. I didn't know he was the son of a baron," Kemaldean said, referring to Mouallem and the article.
Kemaldean's father, Riad "Rudy" Kemaldean, known as "The Godfather" by his peers, bought his first location in Edmonton in 1965.
Riad 'Uncle Rudy' Kemaldean, a.k.a. 'The Godfather of the Burger Baron,' at his Lebanese villa. (Supplied/Omar Mouallem)
In the years following, Rudy expanded the business, opening up several new locations. He eventually brought relatives and friends over to Alberta from Lebanon — a country that, between 1975 and 1990, was engulfed in a deadly civil war.
Rudy helped bring more than 30 relatives and friends to Alberta — all of whom were fleeing for their safety.
He gave them jobs and set them on a path to establishing a life in Alberta through the Burger Baron restaurants, inadvertently furthering the franchise.
The documentary has been financially beneficial for the restaurant, Kemaldean said, but despite that success, it's the recognition of his father's legacy that he values most through all of this.
"A lot of people are using and have used the road he's paved today," Kemaldean said.
"In short, it's just nice for my father to be recognized for his part in all of this."
This illustration by Lee Nielsen depicts the Lebanese civil war. The war displaced hundreds of refugees to rural Alberta, where they learned Burger Baron trade secrets from relatives before branching out on their own. (Supplied/Omar Mouallem)
An improbable success story
The Lebanese Burger Mafia made its rounds through film festivals across Canada and in some European countries with a number of sold-out shows. It's also now slated for a theatrical release in Canada.
Mouallem said he knew the movie would be popular in Alberta because of the subject, but he didn't imagine it would reach this level of success.
The Lebanese Burger Mafia had two sold-out shows in Toronto, one of which was a matinee where the majority of the audience were local Torontonians, he said.
"I figured that you might need to have some context in order to be sold on the premise," Mouallem said.
"I did not expect the two sold out shows in Toronto … It was packed. Not a single ticket left. That really surprised me."
Nizar Watfa, the son of Burger Baron from Lamont, Alta., sits with filmmaker Omar Mouallem outside a Burger Baron in Edmonton. (Supplied/Omar Mouallem)
At its core, The Lebanese Burger Mafia is an immigrant story that explores themes of family and family sacrifices.
It's a comedy, but it also showcases the contributions the Arab and Lebanese community have made in Alberta, while also getting into the politics of the Lebanese civil war.
"I think that this movie will help people appreciate the cultural influence that immigrants, refugees and foreign workers have had, not just in Alberta, but especially in rural Alberta," Mouallem said.
"I would love for people to recognize that for this movie."