OLDS — On Oct. 15, members of the Mountain View Film Group (MVFG) and their guests got to see a film, The Lebanese Burger Mafia, a movie about the Alberta-based Burger Baron fast food chain.
The show stirred up nostalgia for many because at one time, there was a Burger Baron in Olds.
In fact, decades ago, there were Burger Baron restaurants throughout Canada, down into the United States and even overseas.
But now only a few survive, basically in Alberta, including outlets in Sundre and Carstairs. Descendents of the Olds Burger Baron franchise still live in Olds.
Omar Mouallem of Back Road Productions, the writer, director, producer and narrator of the film, is a descendent of a family that ran a Burger Baron restaurant in High Prairie.
The film lovingly depicts history of the Burger Baron concept. It’s claimed by a Lebanese Canadian immigrant that he started the franchise, but the son of an American entrepreneur says his dad started it.
In any case, decades ago, many Lebanese relatives owned many franchises.
However, due to stubbornness or whatever, most refused to follow any rules to keep the food or the look consistent from one franchise to the next – even down to the look of the logo.
In fact in at least one case, the name itself and what it sold changed.
First a short film was pitched to CBC in 2020. It took about about a year-and-a half to shoot the movie starting in 2021.
The film has impressed critics. It was an official selection of Calgary International Film Festival, a finalist for best feature documentary in the Rotterdam Arab Film Festival and received honourable mention in the best feature category of the Toronto Film Festival.
During a couple of screenings of the movie at the Mayfair Cinema in Olds, Mouallem told the crowd that the story actually started out as an article he wrote for the Calgary Herald’s Swerve Magazine about 10 years ago called Will The Real Burger Baron Please Stand Up.
“It stuck with me,” he said. “And the reputation as the burger guy, the guy who like blew the lid off the mystery of Burger Baron, just kind of followed me everywhere I went.”
However, Mouallem and his associates didn’t have much money so they decided to crowd-source the film with a goal of raising $75,000.
“We raised $18,000 directly through, like, little pockets of seed money. I mean literally as little as $10, people were giving,” he said.
But the morning that the crowd fundraiser was launched, a professional gambler heard about it and via text, offered to help fund it.
Mouallem said the gambler indicated to him that if it’s a success, great. If not, (he texted) ‘hey, I’m a gambler after all,’” he said, sparking laughter from the MVFG crowd.
Mouallem said he’s actually proud of the fact the film was made for such a little budget.
“I mean, this movie was going up against documentaries made for 1, 2, 3, 4, $5 million, movies that basically had the backing of (companies like) Netflix.
“And here we were, this little independent documentary from Alberta about an Alberta burger chain and we sold out both screenings. And we were the buzz of the festival. People were talking about us,” he said.
He noted that during a Muslim film festival in Edmonton many people were telling him they had heard of and were impressed by The Lebanese Burger Mafia.
“That’s been really cool,” he said. “To be kind of an underdog success story, it just feels so much more meaningful. And just how hard we had to work to scrape together the money to do this.”
One person in the crowd praised the Burger Baron in Carstairs and how friendly and helpful the Kamaldean family who owns it are.
He said one of the family members in Olds was interviewed for the film but unfortunately, that interview was dropped as part of editing efforts.
Mouallem was asked how his family feels about the movie.
“The general feeling is very positive, it really is, you know,” he said.
“Despite the fact that there’s some pettiness right there, I think everyone has a pretty good sense of humour about it and about themselves,” he said.
He added that the longer version “just has a lot more heart” because he and his crew had the time to fully tell the story and the background of what led to family members emigrating from Lebanon, which suffered a civil war and other calamities over the decades.
“I think the feeling – certainly with my family – is that this is kind of a love letter from the second generation to the first generation. That's exactly what I hope they will feel,” Mouallem said.
“That’s sort of me you know, on behalf of all the other baronets and baronesses, showing our parents, our elders, appreciation for the sacrifices that they made, but also really hoping that they realize that these humble little restaurants are actually kind of important to Alberta culture and that they are in a small way, a part of Western Canadian history.”