Travel

Barons of the Prairies

A history of Alberta’s quirky Burger Baron restaurant chain

  • Oct 24, 2022
  • 1,018 words
  • 5 minutes
Official poster for the short doc The Last Baron. (Photo courtesy Back Road Productions)
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Many of my core memories took place at my family’s diner in High Prairie, Alta., a small town about as regular as any of the hundreds of others sweeping across the Prairies. The townsfolk were conservative, blue collar, not particularly religious but fundamentally practical: practical trucks, practical clothes and practical food. Which is why they came to us, Burger Baron Pizza & Steak.

It was, as the name suggests, an everything-under-the-sun restaurant. Every town has one, and most likely, it’s immigrant owned. For my parents, Lebanese supporting a dozen people between two countries, the prevailing theory was simple: if customers ate it at high enough volumes, we served it. Fried chicken, donairs, stir-fry, pasta, French onion soup, veal cutlets — basically, anything but Lebanese food.

From my booster-seat view at the staff table, I quickly deduced that the main attraction was our signature mushroom burger, an oddity comprising little more than a beef patty smothered in mushrooms and mushroom soup. (Yes, soup. Campbell’s cream of mushroom to be exact, but mixed with something special. Nobody could really put their finger on it—some lemon or hot sauce maybe? Didn’t matter. It worked.) But it took a few years for me to realize that it wasn’t a family recipe and we weren’t the only barons on the prairies. There were dozens of Burger Barons spread across Western Canada, but especially throughout Alberta. Today, the province is home to all but one of the remaining 27 Burger Barons, most of which you’ll find in rural communities like my hometown. 

The author in front of a projection of a Burger Baron in south Edmonton. (Photo: Aaron Pederson)
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Their brand identities vary as wildly as their menus. In Carstairs, it’s takeout only, from a tiny glass-enclosed shack, but one town over in Sundre, Burger Baron & Pizza is a ’50s-style diner decorated with Christmas kitsch. In the hamlet of Caroline, you can dine on pork chops at Baron’s Family Restaurant, a sprawling log house. But in Leduc, an Edmonton suburb with lots of corporate competition, it’s a candy-striped A-frame drive-thru with even fewer fast-food options than a McDonald’s.

And then there’s the issue of the logo, which could not be more dismissive of typical franchise standards. In theory, the mascot is a colourful fat knight with double-Bs in his shield. But in practice, his colours and insignia often vary, and sometimes the baron himself appears emaciated or downright mutilated. That is, if he appears on the sign at all. 

If you ask the Burger Baron’s most stalwart super fans, they’ll tell you its reputation as a crapshoot is part of its charm. It’s why you’ll find cheeky tributes in the form of tattoos, a scene in the raucous mockumentary Fubar 2 and infamous parody Twitter account @Burger_Baron, known for trolling corporate fast-food chains. While the competition spends millions on mastering reproduction, Burger Baron is the anti-chain.

The only guarantees are a few signature burgers — namely the mushroom — and the fact that nearly every franchise is owned by Lebanese immigrants like my family.

Though my parents retired almost 20 years ago, and my brother has since taken over and changed the name (but kept the mushroom burger recipe), this meaty mystery has remained my obsession.

Speaking with the majority of today’s barons — some in the business since the mid-’70s, others for just a few years — quickly led me to Riad Kemaldean, a.k.a. “Uncle Rudy,” a.k.a. “the Godfather.” A shrewd immigrant with a penchant for suits and cigars, Kemaldean bought up his first Burger Baron in Edmonton in 1965. Off its success, he sponsored friends and relatives from back home and set them up to manage new locations, which in turn became training grounds for his protégés’ friends and relatives. 

Kemaldean encouraged them all to take the brand name, logo and recipes with them to a new town without royalties or kickbacks. All he asked for in return was quality control. That might have been too much to ask for. Nevertheless, that inconsistency has become part of the brand itself.

“The Godfather” Riad Kemaldean. (Photo: Amber Bracken)
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While Kemaldean is the undisputed Godfather of the Burger Baron, he’s not the father. The chain was invented in 1957 by Irish-American entrepreneur Jack McDonnell, who moved his family from Montana to Calgary on a hunch that he could beat the other “Mc”-owned fast-food chain to Canada. And for a moment, it looked like he would: Burger Baron exploded to over 30 franchises in six provinces and two states in just over three years, before burning up in its own forward momentum and declaring bankruptcy in 1961.

As far as I can tell, the original corporation’s trademarks were neither sold to creditors nor passed to another shareholder or family member, hence why Burger Baron became public domain and is now more meme than franchise.

At its peak in the early ’90s, there were more than 50 completely independent locations, about twice as many as there are today. No doubt, the Burger Baron’s heyday is over, as owners struggle to compete amid the rise of big-box chains and foodie culture. The biggest challenge has been the next of kin, second-generation Lebanese-Canadians like me, who’ve become white-collar workers not in spite of Burger Baron’s success but because of it.

It leaves me wondering if the very thing that fuelled its long-term success is the main ingredient in its gradual disappearance. Could the restaurants better survive and thrive with a united front? In fact, there’ve been several attempts at that — various summits and dealings — but the Barons have never been able to agree on a hierarchical structure with an appointed leader.

Evidently, cooperation is not a strong Lebanese quality. But generosity and passion for food are. Even though the food tastes different at every Burger Baron, the generosity and passion — and the soupy mushroom burger, of course — are remarkably consistent.

The Last Baron, Mouallem’s original short doc on the origins of the Burger Baron, is available on CBC Gem. His feature film The Lebanese Burger Mafia hits the festival circuit this winter.

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This story is from the November/December 2022 Issue

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