When you think of burgers, it’s not likely that you think of Lebanon. Unless, of course, you’re Omar Mouallem, the director of The Lebanese Burger Mafia. First made as a short film for CBC Gem, Mouallem’s feature-length, crowdfunded documentary premiered at the Hot Docs Festival this spring. Niche in the best way, his film is about Alberta’s cult-favourite fast-food chain Burger Baron, its devoted customers, and the Lebanese families who’ve owned these humble restaurants for decades.
The term “chain” is applied very loosely when it comes to Burger Baron. While all of the restaurants share a name (and the “secret” mushroom sauce, which everyone knows is just Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup), the menus and branding are more of a choose-your-own-adventure approach. Sure, consistency has its merits, but in a sea of uniformity, a little unpredictability is refreshing.
Despite several attempts to unify the locations over the years, the barons were all steadfast in wanting to do their own thing. The Lebanese Burger Mafia is chock-full of colourful characters, like Sal Kamaleddine. He claims to be an original founder of the company, but that turns out to be more tall tale than truth. There’s also his brother, Rudy, a.k.a. “The Godfather,” who helped friends and family escape the war in Lebanon, generously setting them up with their own Burger Barons and sharing trade secrets.
While Lebanese himself, Mouallem was surprised to learn that Burger Baron’s success and the Lebanese Civil War were so interconnected. He explains, “Burger Baron’s best years were basically between the late ’70s and the early ’90s, which perfectly overlaps with the Lebanese Civil War. I’m embarrassed to say, but the first time I wrote about Burger Baron, I don’t think I even had a single conversation about the war and how some of the [burger] barons came to Canada as refugees. And that revelation was quite powerful. There’s a political layer there that surprises and interests people who watch it.”
For Mouallem’s entire childhood, his parents owned and operated one of these popular restaurants in High Prairie, Alberta named Burger Baron Pizza & Steak. A journalist by trade, Mouallem first wrote about this story in 2013 for Swerve magazine, followed by a later article for Vice in 2021. “I guess it’s the story that I became known for,” Mouallem says. “I’ve written real heavy-hitting, high-stakes stuff. But people in Alberta know me as the Burger Baron guy. So I knew this story resonated, because it just kind of followed me. I’m proud of it.”
This personal connection was an important asset while filming. Being Lebanese also helped, especially in the early stages of sourcing interviews with some of the early burger barons. “There was a little bit of skepticism from people. It helped that some of them knew my dad,” Mouallem explains. “I could pull my Lebanese-ness on like a coat and then kind of just talk them through it. They could see that I was genuine, that I was passionate.
In fact, the entire filming crew was Lebanese, including Moh and Mazen Mahfouz, director of photography and camera and sound operator, respectively. “We worked with these young brothers in Edmonton who have such a distinct, glossy, kind of urbane style of shooting that I wanted to use to juxtapose with the restaurants’ humble, blue-collar reality,” Mouallem says.
The Mahfouzs’ aesthetic wasn’t the only thing they had to offer. Mouallem continues, “I didn’t anticipate how perfect they were for the environment. Having them there sometimes to translate, if need be, made everyone feel like this was a community project. Being able to speak Arabic went a long way in some of these households. And it also helps that they come from a well-respected and kind of revered family—their grandfather is an esteemed Lebanese poet. I don’t know if the movie would have been possible if we hadn’t had basically a fully Lebanese crew.”
Though The Lebanese Burger Mafia often is quite funny, Mouallem has serious intentions with the film. “I think what makes this story unique is that people who came to Canada on a boat and are serving you hamburgers are actually the caretakers of a distinctly Albertan institution. It is something that people associate with Albertan culture,” Mouallem continues. “And until this film, I would say the majority of people did not know that it had also become a Lebanese tradition; that Burger Baron would not exist without Lebanese immigrants and refugees. To pull back the curtain to reveal that is something I try to do often in my work, whether it’s written or as a film—to get people to understand the cultural influence of racialized people in North America, because it often goes underappreciated.”
Speaking of infamous Alberta institutions, Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger is a huge fan of Burger Baron, recently giving the restaurant a shout-out while being interviewed on the red carpet at the 2023 Juno Awards. In his small hometown of Hanna, Alberta, there aren’t many restaurants, but there is a Burger Baron—Jerry’s Burger Baron, to be exact. “The real central thesis of the film is, where would Nickelback eat if it hadn’t been for this community of Lebanese immigrants?” Mouallem laughs. “Burger Baron’s getting a nice little bump from them right now, which is great timing for the film.”
Part of what makes The Lebanese Burger Mafia such a meaningful documentary is that Mouallem often puts himself in front of the camera, taking the audience on an incredibly personal journey. “There was no question that I was going to be a part of it. I think it makes it feel more emotionally resonant and transparent,” says Mouallem. “Having come up in the restaurants but no longer being a part of them, it makes me a really effective tour guide because I have one foot in, one out. I can speak to it with authority and from the heart, but I can still look at it quite objectively.”
The scenes with Mouallem’s family are some of the most enjoyable, infused with warmth and humour, like when his mother unconvincingly says she liked the food at Burger Baron and then insists on changing the topic. There are also bittersweet moments that shed light on the complexities of running a restaurant. During an intimate conversation, Mouallem and his brother, who took over the Baron when their parents retired, discuss the hardships and joys of the business. The long hours are physically and emotionally demanding, but ultimately, serving the community they love is rewarding.
Throughout filming, everyone consumed more than their fair share of burgers. Going back to his roots, Mouallem is all about the basics these days. “Making this film and eating all of those burgers reminded me how much better burgers are with fewer vegetables and ingredients. The more simplified it is, the better it is. I got into the habit of getting the burgers that have the most stuff on them: some greens, maybe a couple of different cheeses, and it just starts to become kind of complicated and it no longer tastes like a burger. It’s really all about the juicy meat and everything else is just supposed to complement that.”
Much like Burger Baron and its burgers, The Lebanese Burger Mafia is straight-ahead and unpretentious. But underneath all of that mushroom sauce is a unique part of Canadiana that deserves to be known. A story close to Mouallem’s heart, The Lebanese Burger Mafia is a funny, behind-the-scenes look at an immigrant success story in the Prairies.