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.