Burger Baron superfan Brian Knight.
Burger Baron superfan Brian Knight. Photo by Amber Bracken/Back Road Productions


How a McDonald’s Knockoff Became the Immigrant Dream

With its sloppy burgers and friendly fat knight mascot, Alberta’s Burger Baron has amassed a cult following—and sheltered a generation of Arab immigrants.
October 15, 2021, 10:00am

Chances are you’ve never heard of Burger Baron unless you grew up in Alberta, Canada, in which case it’s a cultural icon. Since 1957, the unlikely fast-food empire has somehow endured through every dining trend of the past six decades, with more than 25 locations spread across the province, almost entirely in small towns. Albertans will often find themselves wondering, How do they still exist? It’s not quality—even die-hard fans will admit that—and it’s certainly not consistency—no two Burger Barons are alike. 

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The truth is, Burger Baron maintains a cult following to this day partly because it’s a shitshow. To begin with, the logo—a colourful fat knight with double-Bs in his shield—often appears on signs as a crudely drawn copy of the original. The mascot sometimes looks emaciated or downright mutilated, if he appears on the sign at all. The restaurants themselves range from drive-thru burger shacks to sprawling steakhouses. Depending on the location, the kitchen might also serve pasta, souvlaki, spring rolls, or bannock.

No two Burger Baron menus are alike.

No two Burger Baron menus are alike. Photo by Amber Bracken/Back Road Productions

Besides the name, the only other guarantees are two burger recipes: the flagship Baron and the mushroom. While the Baron’s dark red sauce has its fans, it’s the mushroom burger that’s amassed fanatics.

“It’s iconic,” explains veteran food writer Judy Schultz. “The first time I tasted that mushroom sauce, I was 8 years old again, back in my mom’s kitchen, and I can see her opening that can of mushroom soup, which I think plays heavily in the mushroom sauce,” she says. Though the Barons jealously guard the recipe from customers, I can corroborate that the sauce is almost entirely comprised of uncooked cream of mushroom soup, straight out of the can.

Touring musician Dean Kheroufi, who got the Burger Baron logo tattooed on his leg following a bet he “wanted to lose,” often has to explain the cultural significance of the cheery mascot inked on his body to foreigners. “I usually start to explain Burger Baron to them and realize I’m in too deep and not really making sense,” he says.

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Though nostalgia and mystique add to the appeal, the restaurants seem to endure on the merits of their own continued existence.

“The first time I tasted that mushroom sauce, I was 8 years old again, back in my mom’s kitchen.”

Burger Baron was founded in Calgary by Jack McDonnell, a serial entrepreneur who moved his family up from Montana on a hunch that he could beat the other “Mc”-owned fast-food chain to Canada. A new McDonald’s was opening every few weeks in the U.S., yet Canadians had barely tasted the fast-food craze. His prophecy proved true: 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. “The restaurants weren’t run properly,” says the late founder’s son Terry McDonnell. “Dad didn’t train the franchisees well enough, and the franchisees didn’t train staff well enough.” Left in the wake of insolvency were dozens of orphaned franchises, almost all of which closed shop by the time McDonald’s made its Canadian debut in 1967.

To the best of his knowledge, the intellectual property of his father’s burger chain—trademarks for the name, the logo, the flagship Baron burger—was neither passed to another shareholder nor sold to creditors. (If you don’t enforce a trademark, it ceases being one.) Burger Baron became public domain.

A restaurant owner himself, Terry wasn’t sure how any franchisees survived the rush of U.S. franchises that followed on the chain’s heels. While running a steakhouse in Lethbridge, Alberta, in the 1980s, he was surprised to see Burger Barons that had nothing to do with his family popping up all around him and seemingly out of nowhere in towns populated by fewer than 1,000 people.

Burger Baron in Leduc, Alberta, with its distinctive candy-striped A-frame.

Burger Baron in Leduc, Alberta, with its distinctive candy-striped A-frame. Photo by Back Road Productions

At first it seemed like one person was behind Burger Baron’s second coming, until Terry noticed the irregularities in the logos. He says it was as if “somebody looked at the original and tried to draw it again.”

Once limited to three kinds of burgers, fries, and shakes, menus at the new Burger Barons ran practically as long as a Chinese restaurant’s. Some of the Barons actually sold Chinese food, and most had some take on shawarma, the first clue into who was behind it all.

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When one inevitably popped up in the Lethbridge area, Terry took it as a sign to close his steakhouse and start anew as the burger chain’s rightful torchbearer and bring the Baron back to Calgary, where it originated. The idea wasn’t just pragmatic—it was poetic. “It went well right off the bat. I got a lot of people saying, ‘Where have you been?’”

Terry gleaned more information from customers about the faux Barons. The knockoffs all seemed to be linked to a single Lebanese family named Kemaldean. Sometimes spelled Kamalledine or Kemalleddine, the name rang a bell. A couple members of the family had bought up a few of the last original Burger Barons after the bankruptcy, often at a bargain price. What Terry hadn’t known, and wouldn’t know until I interviewed him this year for The Last Baron, a documentary about the storied restaurant, is that it wasn’t one Lebanese family behind the reboot, but many, including mine.

Here’s how Barons are born, according to my dad, Ahmed: First, you need a building. After that, you need to put up a sign that says Burger Baron. That’s it, you’re a Baron now.

Burger Baron is less a franchise than a meme. My own family’s location, in High Prairie, Alberta (population: 2,867), officially Burger Baron Pizza & Steakhouse, had a fully licensed bar, drive-thru window, jukebox, and cigarette machine when it opened in 1987. Elsewhere in the province, patrons await their orders while playing arcade games or drying clothes in the restaurant’s coin-operated laundromat. Until recently, there was even a Burger Baron in Lebanon, and to the owners’ credit, they maintained the original mascot with only one modification: The crosses in his crusader shield were changed to Xs.

The logo—a colourful fat knight with double-Bs in his shield—often appears on signs as a crudely drawn copy of the original, left.

The logo—a colourful fat knight with double-Bs in his shield—often appears on signs as a crudely drawn copy of the original (left). Photo by Back Road Productions

From Burger Bar to Carlos Restaurant, there are dozens more Burger Barons not named Burger Baron. Off the top of my head, I can name three restaurateurs on my family tree who’ve copied the recipes and even the burger names but not the storied restaurant name. One is my brother Ali, who took over my parents’ business in 2008 and dishonoured us greatly when he changed the name to Boondocks’ Grill.

Of course he kept the recipes handed down from our dad, who learned the tricks of the trade from his uncles in a nearby town, who’d bought their burger shack from another Lebanese clan, who in turn got the recipes from someone known to many as “The Godfather of the Burger Baron,” or just “Uncle Rudy.”

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Riad Kemaldean, or “Rudy,” grew up in Baalchmay, a town on Mount Lebanon 22 kilometres uphill from Beirut. As the second of eight children, he helped support his family in the hours outside of school, whether that meant getting up at 5 a.m. to sell apples in the streets, or joining his dad, a truck driver, to neighbouring countries to deliver Lebanese imports.

Riad Kemaldean, or “Rudy,” is known to many as "The Godfather of the Burger Baron."

Riad Kemaldean, or “Rudy,” is known to many as "The Godfather of the Burger Baron." Photo by Amber Bracken/Back Road Productions

Trips across the Levant nurtured an entrepreneurial spirit, but they also exposed young Rudy to the disintegrating Middle East. Though it was the 1950s, the “Golden Age of Lebanon,” the country was coming apart as it struggled with influxes of refugees and rebel factions. “We knew what’s happening between the Arabs and Israel,” recalls Rudy. “It was miserable for everybody, especially for the Palestinians.”

He jumped at the chance to leave in 1957, when an uncle in Canada offered to sponsor Rudy, then 21, and his teenage brother Saleh.

“I thought the West was the perfection of humanity,” says Saleh Kemaleddine, who assumed a different spelling of their surname at the border. He soon realized that “Canada” was Carievale, Saskatchewan, a farming village, where their uncle, a former peddler, had established the town’s only general store and an all-in-one hotel, bar, and restaurant. While Saleh left Carievale at the earliest possible moment, Rudy accepted an apprenticeship with his uncle and took to the kitchen like it was his calling.

Rudy eventually made his way to Calgary, where he partnered with other Lebanese to open his own restaurant. The immigrant owners called it “Cedars,” after the cedars of Lebanon, but, ever the opportunists, they specialized in burgers and fries, capitalizing on the success of the original Burger Baron.

A young Rudy Kemaldean at Cedars. Photo supplied

A young Rudy Kemaldean at Cedars. Photo supplied

Rudy didn’t know it was essentially an orphaned brand on the brink of collapse. The original burger shack was still doing well as an independent business operated by Jack McDonnell’s brother. When Rudy learned of one for sale in Edmonton in 1965, he sold his shares in Cedars to purchase it.

He was a Baron now, and somewhat unbelievably, he still hadn’t tasted the food.

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“All he showed me was the financial statements,” Rudy says of the seller. “He was taking about $100,000 a year, which, at that time, was by selling 25-cent burgers.” That the franchisee was so eager to sell should have been a red flag, but Rudy understood the untethered business as a bonus. Franchisees of A&W and the like give significant portions of their profits to the franchisor to use their names and secret processes. Not so the Burger Baron Company Ltd., which hadn’t been a registered corporation for years. Better yet, now that Rudy knew the recipes, he could expand to other areas.

Rudy built two Burger Barons simultaneously in Edmonton’s bedroom communities, knowing they wouldn’t face brand-name competition. He designed them to be unmissable—tall, candy-striped, A-frame buildings—and added new items pandering to local pride, such as the Canadian, the Trucker, and eventually the Oilers burger.

The A-frames became iconic, convincing many today that they’re the original locations, nevermind that the original mascot appears 50 pounds thinner. Customers came to believe Rudy was the originator.

Their false impressions of Rudy as founder may have resulted from his family’s own misinformation campaign. At one location he founded, there’s a doctored photo of young Rudy allegedly working at the “first Burger Baron” in 1955—two years before its establishment. Several of his nieces and nephews even told me they grew up believing Uncle Rudy was the OG baron.

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Rudy denies ever claiming to have invented it, but Derek Jamieson, a die-hard patron (and also my father-in-law) says otherwise: “He claimed, certainly to my face, that he is the originator of the Burger Baron. He’s the man. He’s the guy that came up with all the stuff, like the logo and the food.” 

My father-in-law was visibly disappointed when I enlightened him about its true origins. “Rudy was a very convincing individual, and he was standing in his Burger Baron surrounded by his children, telling me his story, so I had no reason to doubt him.”

While original Burger Baron franchises vanished from Quebec, Ontario, California, and even Calgary in the 1970s, a new generation bloomed in and around Edmonton. More than just a means of feeding Albertans, the restaurants fed and sheltered a generation of Arab immigrants. 

Rudy helped many close relatives and friends migrate from Lebanon to Alberta, giving them all jobs and sometimes residence in a mobile home on his Edmonton restaurant’s property. Lebanese arrived in his restaurants having never tasted a burger, and before long they were ready to strike out on their own, usually in towns too small for name-brand competition. By 1975 there were, by Rudy’s estimate, 13 new Burger Barons, seven or eight of which he’d financed, and the others he’d supported with training and mentorship. The number would nearly triple with the inevitable outbreak of civil war in Lebanon later that year.

“Rudy Kemaldean was the one who invited us to visit Canada,” says Jamil Amin Chehayeb. Back then, Chehayeb was a commercial airlines captain and a war hero—the first Lebanese Air Force pilot to fly a supersonic jet.

The friends first discussed it briefly during a double wedding for Rudy and Saleh held inside an ornate mansion that Rudy had built as a summer home on Mount Lebanon. His other home in Edmonton was also a mansion, and Rudy himself had a reputation for arriving to work in suits and Cadillacs. But Chehayeb wasn’t swayed by the fanciness of it all. Rather, it was the promise of securing a future for his children that convinced his family to move to Western Canada.

Jamil Amin Chehayeb was swayed to work at and eventually take over a Burger Baron to secure a better life for his children.

Jamil Amin Chehayeb was swayed to work at and eventually take over a Burger Baron to secure a better life for his children. Photo by Back Road Productions

He resisted working in one of the many Burger Barons owned by friends and relatives, trying instead to continue his pilot career, without success. “I passed all the exams, but for some reason, I believe political, they decided not to hire me,” he says. According to Chehayeb, one airliner admitted why: “They claimed that they would eventually fly to Israel, and being Lebanese, I wouldn’t be allowed there.”

He gave in to what seemed like his only opportunity for a decent life, working at and eventually taking over a Burger Baron in Wetaskiwin, a town 70 kilometres south of Edmonton. “Can you imagine somebody literally on top of the world, coming down to start in the kitchen, washing dishes?” he says. “I had a challenge in front of me. Either I accept it and give my children a good life, or I come back to Lebanon.”

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“Rudy was generous in his approach to any relative, any friend, any person who came and asked for the name [Burger Baron], he said, ‘Go ahead, no problem,” Rudy’s brother-in-law Fauzi Abi-Farrage tells me when I interview him and Rudy together at his Leduc restaurant for the documentary.

“Well,” adds Rudy, “I got the name for nothing, so they could do whatever they want.”

“The Lebanese community rose, and Burger Baron prospered, because of interpersonal relations.”

By 1985, there were over 30 locations in Alberta and B.C. operated by a handful of extended families. Few sought the Godfather’s blessing to open anymore; the secret sauces had become part of the community’s collective knowledge. 

In a way, Burger Baron is the perfect business model for Lebanese, who are famous for their independence. Sociologist Baha Abu-Laban, who authored some of the first studies of North America’s Arab diaspora, referred to this in his works as a “Levantine ethic,” which emphasizes capitalistic enterprise without waiting on others for support. “They are average-type entrepreneurs, who want to be self-independent, run a business, and make a living that way,” explains the University of Alberta professor emeritus. Yet at the same time, the ethic emphasizes collectivism by sharing mutually beneficial information, such as the restaurant’s trade secrets. “The Lebanese community rose, and Burger Baron prospered, because of interpersonal relations.”

Burger Baron is an ideal business model for Lebanese who are famous for their "Levantine ethic," which emphasizes both capitalistic enterprise and collectivism. Photo by Amber Bracken/Back Road Productions

Burger Baron is an ideal business model for Lebanese who are famous for their "Levantine ethic," which emphasizes both capitalistic enterprise and collectivism. Photo by Back Road Productions

Abu-Laban sees parallels between Burger Baron and the Lebanese prairie traders of a century ago. “When a good entrepreneurial idea comes up, people who know each other talk to each other, and learn from each other, and work with each other, and then move forward.” Emphasis on moving forward.

Nevertheless, several barons tried to standardize the restaurants over the decades.

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The disorder following the arrival of refugees led Rudy to attempt to unify blood-related barons. “You can’t charge a royalty for using the name,” he said. “They’re family.” Still, any suggestion that violated their independence, and did not immediately yield profits, went ignored, even the uniforms he had produced at his own expense.

Nazem Kamaleddine, who was rescued from civil war by (his real) Uncle Rudy in 1976, stepped up to lead the company’s unification efforts in 1984. He held a few meetings in Edmonton attended by about a dozen barons, each time coming prepared with new incentives for standardizing their various recipes and menus. He had suppliers willing to mix and store their sauces, secured a generous quote for TV commercials, and developed a manageable payment plan to renovate individual facades with the iconic candy-stripe design. Most couldn’t get past Nazem’s proposed royalty fee of 3 to 4 percent monthly gross sales. Others couldn’t get past his age. “I was a kid compared to all of them,” says Nazem, who started working full-time for his uncle at age 13 and became a baron himself at 18. “You know the Lebanese way; you can’t put it through their heads that sometimes a younger guy has better ideas.”

Nazem Kamaleddine, who became a baron at 18, and his son Kamal.

Nazem Kamaleddine, who became a baron at 18, and his son Kamal. Photo by Back Road Productions

There was one last attempt at unification in 1989. Chehayeb called a summit of the Barons at Edmonton’s Mayfield Inn, and, perhaps because he wasn’t closely related to the Kemaldeans, successfully convinced some of the most fiercely independent owners to hear out his plans for a Burger Baron Restaurants of Alberta Ltd.

My dad remembered excitement in the air as barons like himself, who were relatively new to the brand and still felt like outsiders, met their elders and peers for the first time. “Everybody was friendly and happy to see the others. Some of them brought their wives. It was like a big gathering.” But it descended into bickering as soon as Chehayeb proposed costly renovations and a corporate structure with him at the head. “Everybody started thinking, ‘Hey, this guy is gonna fool us,’” he recalls. “I’m the owner, and whatever happens is my decision.”

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“Unfortunately, almost nobody joined in because they were mostly individualists,” says Chehayeb, whose only success was creating a rebate plan with suppliers that ended up beingcost-effective for everyone but him. “I was doing it on a volunteer basis.” He quit after two years and retired soon after. “It served its purpose. My purpose was to survive until my children graduate from university and I don’t need the business anymore.”

Absent from these talks was Saleh Kemaleddine, though he said his omission was by choice. “I wouldn’t want to be part of those guys in it because I know how they operate—no discipline,” he says.

While he bought the last legitimate Burger Baron in Edmonton in the late 1960s, he failed to turn it into a money machine and ended up selling it to franchise an A&W in northern B.C., which didn’t last much longer. Saleh spent the next 15 years bouncing around Western Canada, opening and closing an array of businesses until striking it big in silver mining. But that, too, was short-lived. “I lost almost $13 million when the [economic] crash came,” he says.

“I became the bad guy of the Burger Baron, and Rudy is the Godfather.”

Seeing as how Burger Baron had become a sustainable source of wealth for his extended family, Saleh moved to Olds, Alberta, in 1984 to try his hand at it again. He went about trying to standardize the other restaurants almost immediately, driving from town to town in his Rolls Royce, to criticize the other owners and suggest they begin consulting him about proper uniforms, training, and branding. “It was my personal crusade because nobody cared about it as long as they were making money.”

But others, including members of his own family, saw him as an interloper trying to profit off their hard work. “I became the bad guy of the Burger Baron, and Rudy is the Godfather,” jokes Saleh.

Saleh Kemaleddine took it upon himself to try and standardize the Burger Barons, with limited success.

Saleh Kemaleddine took it upon himself to try and standardize the Burger Barons, with limited success. Photo by Back Road Productions

Rebuffed, he apparently shifted his attention to new and non-familial barons and reworked his angle to be more persuasive. That’s how Terry McDonnell learned that Lebanese immigrants had not only appropriated his father’s burger chain—one had appropriated his father’s story.

A year or two after Terry started Calgary’s new Burger Baron in 1989, a Rolls Royce pulled into his parking lot. Out swaggered a short, unfamiliar mustachioed man. The customer ordered a meal from Terry standing behind the counter, and, according to Terry, pointed to the notepad as he scribbled the order and said, “I invented that.”

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Terry looked up at the customer incredulously, giving him a moment to explain. “I started this franchise,” the man added before introducing himself.

He recognized the last name. “I’d heard of them in Southern Alberta, in little towns where people had started Burger Barons in little coffee shops,” he tells me.

He managed to keep his cool with the man he now understands was Saleh. “Do you know my father, Jack McDonnell?” Terry asked him.

“As soon as I mentioned my dad’s name, it stopped the conversation. He got his hamburger and left.”

Asked how he felt about rumours that the Kemaldeans/Kemaleddines/Kamaleddines started the restaurant, Terry says, “It infuriates me. It’s just not true. It’s not even close to it. It’s an outright lie, and I don’t like it!”

Terry McDonnell, the son of the original Burger Baron owner Jack McDonnell, didn't love how Lebanese immigrants purported to start the chain.

Terry McDonnell, the son of the original Burger Baron owner Jack McDonnell, didn't love how Lebanese immigrants purported to start the chain. Photo by Back Road Productions

It was a lasting memory, though, and one of the only vivid memories of Terry’s Burger Baron foray. Despite decent sales in Calgary, issues with the lease forced him to put it up for sale within a couple years. In 1993, Terry closed its doors after four years, the same amount of time it took his dad to file for bankruptcy. He moved to Southern California, set on leaving Alberta and the Burger Baron behind him forever.

But this wasn’t the end of the saga for the McDonnell family. Throughout the Burger Baron’s second life, a key figure in the company had been left out from negotiations: Rikie McDonnell, the founder’s second wife. The lone baroness had been busily running an independent location in Regina, Saskatchewan, blissfully unaware that her Lebanese male counterparts were feuding over the rights to her late husband’s legacy.

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Rikie, a Dutch immigrant from a poor family, had taken on the shop the year after Jack died of cancer in 1983. “I can’t say exactly what my dad’s vision was, but I could state that my dad was more of a head-in-the-clouds person, and my mom was all about the roots,” says James McDonnell, speaking on behalf of his media-shy mother. Like Rudy, my parents, and so many others, Rikie ran the business the way only an immigrant would: pouring her heart and soul into it, and assigning jobs to her children.

Rikie’s singular focus quickly turned the restaurant around, garnering it a reputation for serving Regina’s best burgers year after year. On the advice of her sons, she did something the Lebanese had never thought or dared to do before: She applied to re-register the trademarks for the Burger Baron name, logo, and signature burgers.

Her case was opposed a few months later by Saleh, who drove over 600 kilometres to deliver a message in person. According to Saleh, he told Rikie, “I could spend a couple hundred thousand dollars for lawyers’ fees. And you could be spending a couple hundred thousand dollars for lawyers’ fees, and we will not get anywhere.” They decided instead to split the territory: Saleh got trademark rights over Alberta and B.C., and Rikie got control over everything else.

The reluctant baroness did little with her rights, only once selling an unsuccessful franchise in Saskatchewan, before passing the shares down to James, who grew the business and branched out with a second Regina location. Saleh, on the other hand, did everything in his power to become the head baron.

I interviewed more than a dozen current and former owners for The Last Baron, many of whom recalled a confrontational phone call or visit from Saleh, likening him to a mafioso. As my dad remembers, “He told me he’s the original owner of the Burger Baron, and he said, ‘The name is gonna cost you.’ I said, ‘You’re not getting nothing. I don’t even have your sign, and I have a pizza and steakhouse.’”

Omar Mouallem stands in front of a Burger Baron in Edmonton. Photo by Amber Bracken/Back Road Productions

Omar Mouallem stands in front of a Burger Baron in Edmonton. Photo by Amber Bracken/Back Road Productions

The other barons told him off in more or less the same way. There was nothing he could do about any businesses that preceded 1998, when the trademarks were reinstated. There’s an argument, too, that neither Burger Baron shareholder can impose their trademark rights. One of the basic principles of company law is that companies and owners are separate entities; unless the current shareholders can prove a “tort of passing off” for the trademarks from the original Burger Baron Company Ltd., insolvent since 1961, then their exclusivity claims are unlikely to hold up in court.

The reinstated franchise has stopped new Burger Barons from opening but has done nothing to stop bootleggers from serving the same recipes. You’ll find that soupy mushroom burger under vaguely Lebanese names, like Ramsy’s and Sammy’s, and less conspicuous ones like Burger Bar, Best Bite, and, yes, the pluralized Burger Barons in the town of Tofield. But whether any of these owners will enjoy the longevity of their predecessors is another question.

As a result of foodie culture, small-town competition, and, most of all, young baronets reluctant to carry on tradition, a third of all Burger Barons have closed their doors in the past decade. Rudy, Saleh, and the McDonnells, including Rikie and James, are out of the business, though Saleh’s daughter, now in possession of his company shares, continues to crack down on imposters.

For his part, James, now CEO of one the country’s largest billboard advertisers, only concerns himself with claims to his father’s legacy. He was 6 when Jack died, too young to form many memories, but he could still have a relationship with his father through Burger Baron. “When I look at the Burger Baron, I feel attached to my dad, like there’s a piece of his soul there. When we closed the restaurants, I felt like I lost a piece of my soul.”

The Lebanese appropriation of his dad’s vision has always angered James, especially those substandard locations that, in his view, tainted the brand’s reputation. But he started to see things differently after understanding the true scope of his father’s legacy. Because of a popular little burger shack that went rogue, immigrants like my parents were able to secure a future for themselves and their children, reunite with their families, and get loved ones out of a war zone. 

“When you put it in that context,” he tells me, “Yes, I am happy that it supports families. Genuinely, I’m really grateful that something my dad did has been able to support families like yours.”

The Last Baron is now available in Canada on CBC Gem. Follow Omar Mouallem on Twitter