Omar Mouallem's documentary is a deeply personal look at the history of the western Canadian "chain"
By Steven Sandor | September 14, 2021
The Last Baron will debut on CBC Gem this weekend. There will be an independent, pre-screening event this Thursday evening at Triffo Theatre on the MacEwan University complex.
But, it’s not finished. It’s still very much a work-in-progress for writer and filmmaker Omar Mouallem.
The nearly-hour-long documentary you’ll see on CBC is as much a love letter to a unique part of Canadian food culture as it is a story about entrepreneurship without rules, but he wants to do even more with the story. Mouallem (disclosure: a former member of the editorial staff of this magazine, and still a contributor) is currently trying to crowdsource more funding for the film — so more footage can be added, there can be more music, more art and more stories about the history of Burger Barons in this country.
The doc tells the story of the rise, fall, rise again and steady decline of the Burger Baron, ahem, “chain” across the Canadian prairies. And it’s a labour of love for Mouallem, as his parents were the Burger “Barons” of High Prairie. He grew up in a family that, like many small-town prairie restaurant proprietors, viewed their business as their true home. They were part of a wave of Lebanese immigrants who either took over or started Burger Baron restaurants, despite no central franchise to control what they served or even what logos they used.
The story began as a long-form magazine piece, and has evolved into a film — and it’s rekindled Mouallem’s love for the art form. He went to film school, but he became disillusioned with the idea of being behind the camera, and instead made a national name for himself as a decorated magazine writer and author. But, being able to tell a story that has a deep, personal connection to him, being able to work with Arab animators and sound engineers — it’s been a special experience.
“It’s easier for me to tell a story that’s so personal,” he says. “I like to write personal stories. And, being the son of a ‘baron’ helped me to connect to all the various Burger Baron families. I grew up in a Burger Baron family, too… And being able to feature the work of Arab artists, it was important to me.”
What is the connection between Lebanon and the Burger Baron? As the film outlines, the Burger Baron was launched in Calgary and Lethbridge by Jack McDonnell, an Irish-American entrepreneur who believed he could replicate McDonald’s success in Canada. The new chain blossomed across the prairies. But, like so many franchises, lack of quality control, a lack of franchise standards and the failure to react to competition led to the Baron nearly going out of business.
And this is where The Last Baron becomes the great immigrant tale. A wave of Lebanese immigrants bought the restaurants, or started new Burger Barons. Except, they were all fiercely independent. They didn’t recognize central control over the Burger Baron name. They all had different menus. In time, some used Burger Baron items (like the famous Mushroom Burger) on the menus of other family restaurants they owned. Now, what’s left of the Burger Baron is a dwindling number of restaurants that still carry the name.
Mouallem sees a parallel between the Lebanese families who took over the burger restaurants on the prairies to other waves of immigrants — from Chinese restaurateurs to Greek entrepreneurs — who also carved out their livings in small-town Western Canada.
“One of the interesting things is that many of these Lebanese families were taking over restaurants from the Greek pizza places. And that’s why many of these Burger Barons still have pizza on their menu [the famous Greek prairie pizza, with the doughy crust and the toppings underneath the cheese]. The irony is that Greek families came to Canada and started Italian restaurants, and then the Lebanese came in and served American food. I think there is a sort of Mediterranean kinship, there.”
Mouallem visited Burger Barons across the West. And, yes, he even reached out to the anonymous owner of the infamous Burger Baron parody account. (If you live in Edmonton and you’re on Twitter, you follow the wonderfully offensive @Burger_Baron. It’s a given.)
The @Burger_Baron owner was hesitant to be interviewed on camera, even if silhouetted and the voice was changed. But, eventually, the account owner agreed to answer some questions via direct message. Mouallem took the answers to various “barons” to read on camera. This isn’t in the CBC version. The hope is to include it in the extended, crowdfunded version.
“And, I have to be honest, the reaction to the account is mixed,” says Mouallem.
@Burger_Baron has been enthusiastic in its support for the film, promising “full frontal” in the full version. We hope the Baron is… kidding?
In the end, Mouallem understands that, in years to come, people won’t know the Burger Baron. The number of Burger Barons is shrinking, with recent closures in Edmonton and Sherwood Park. The reason? Many of the kids of barons don’t want to become barons themselves. When mom and dad retire, there is no one to take over.
The irony is that the Barons in smaller towns, for now, look to be more resilient.
“The thing is that, in the larger communities, there may be more options for people, but in the smaller communities, where there are fewer opportunities, it might be a more attractive option to own a Burger Baron,” says Mouallem, who thinks that, in a generation, we may be down to one Burger Baron left — period.
“But I could be wrong,” he says. “After all, this is a business with a very low barrier to entry. All you need is a shack, a deep freezer, a deep fryer and a grill. There is no franchise fee.”
(Supporting The Last Baron grants you access to the pre-screening on Thursday, but, understand there will be no food service on-site and that you will need to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours of the event.)