Hot Docs 2023 Review: The Lebanese Burger Mafia

by Andrew Parker

Rich in economic, cultural, culinary, and familial histories, the amusing, cheekily titled, and disarmingly complex documentary The Lebanese Burger Mafia is a satisfyingly full meal.

Before McDonalds cracked into the Western Canadian marketplace, there was Burger Baron, a quickly rising chain restaurant run by an Irish-American entrepreneur who moved to the Great White North. The chain proved unsustainable and declared bankruptcy in the 1960s, but the iconography and brand name lives on to this day in an unlikely way. Scattered across small towns in Alberta, Burger Barons still thrive; all of them owned by families of Lebanese immigrants, and none of them boasting the same menus, decor, or even logos. The quality isn’t even the same from location to location, which is something superfans of the chain find endearing. That, and the highly addictive mushroom burgers, with a “top secret” sauce.

Director Omar Mouallem is well equipped to tell this story of sibling rivalries, small town life, and the immigrant experience because he happens to be a son of a franchise owning “baron.” The Lebanese Burger Mafia has a rich lineage that traces back to the birth of fast food culture, crosses geographical and cultural boundaries, and all of it is highly fascinating. It’s a remarkable bit of Canadian history that’s in danger of dying out soon if new generations of “barons” don’t want to take up the family business.

It’s a story built on struggle, success, overcoming prejudice, and boasts a healthy side of family drama. The Lebanese Burger Mafia will feed the mind and soul before making the viewer run out to grab a bite to eat immediately after.

The Lebanese Burger Mafia screened as part of the 2023 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. It opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Friday, November 10, 2023. It also opens at Bytowne Cinema in Ottawa and Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon on November 17 and in Edmonton at Metro Cinema on November 18.

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