Calling Webers a ‘burger stand’ is a bit like calling The Louvre a ‘building with pretty pictures.’
Among Ontario cottage-goers, the Orillia-area restaurant has attained landmark status. To them, it is more than a place to grab a burger and milkshake for less than $10 – and a bathroom break for free. Since its opening in 1963, Webers has become a near-mandatory stop where thousands of vacationers meet and eat.
At the heart of today’s operation are two Western alumni – one the boss, one an employee and both long-time friends.
“You can be heading up to cottage country for a happy vacation and we’re just one part of that journey,” owner Tom Rennie, BA’95 (Political Science), said during a rare, weekday-morning break in the action. “Webers is a destination.”
In 1963, founder Paul Weber aimed to serve the growing cottage crowd at a midway point in their travels.
Rennie grew up going to Webers. It was two hours door-to-door and halfway between the family home and cottage. His family is well-known in the Guelph area for its community involvement and business legacy as a manufacturer of dress shirts.
When it came time to choose universities, Rennie wanted one that would help him in the family business and enable him to keep playing football.
He played tight end for the Mustangs for two years. With a season that started in mid-August, plus a full course load, he learned teamwork, discipline and time management – all lessons that would prepare him for working with his father for several years, until the company was sold in 1999. (It has since ceased operations.)
In 2003, a friend of his who worked at Molson – the company had just finished shooting a television ad at Webers – told him the business was for sale. Interested, Rennie left his card with Paul Weber, Jr., who had taken the helm after Paul, Sr. retired in 1989.
Only when Weber, Jr., called back and responded in the negative – the restaurant was not for sale – did Rennie learn his buddy had been pulling his leg.
But Weber, Jr., warmed to the idea and phoned back six weeks later.
On March 1, 2004, Rennie became the owner of an institution among Canadian eateries.
One of the first staffers to introduce himself was Mike ‘Key Man’ McParland, BA’71, who started working at the restaurant in 1963 as teenager and hasn’t missed a summer in the 55 years since. McParland’s crucial role at Webers earned him the nickname Key Man – or, even more simply, Key.
“I don’t know of many people who can say they’ve worked at a single company for 55 years and still enjoy it as much as the day they started,” Rennie said. “He’s such a personable individual; it’s hard not to like him.”
Key is not only burger-flipper extraordinaire – he can grill up 700 burgers in an hour – he is mentor to the younger staff and keeper of the Webers’ story and legend.
He was 16 when he started a week before the place opened. He still remembers the white shirt and black bow tie he wore. These days, he wears a ‘Key Man’ button on his white chef’s shirt and a trademark headband – it keeps the sweat from dripping down his bald head, although he will joke it’s to keep the hair out of his eyes.
Key has always liked being ‘the guy at the grill’ preparing each 3.6-ounce patty to order.
“You can say, ‘I want it well done’ and I’ll make it so well done you could drop it (as a puck) at centre ice,” he laughed. “You can ask for it rare and I can make it so blue the horns are practically still attached.”
He worked there every summer through high school then flipped burgers in the months between classes at Western while working towards a degree in Psychology. He punctuated 35 years of teaching in Orillia with summer shifts and now caps off his ‘retirement’ by spending 22 hours a week at the Webers grill.
Milestones in his life have marked by seasons at the restaurant. He married Margie and they honeymooned nearby so that he could be back flipping burgers within a week. They had five kids – a girl and four boys – and they all worked at Webers.
When Mike and Margie’s 16-year-old son Josh died in a van crash, Paul, Jr. set up a memorial in the picnic area of Webers where Key Man finds respite.
Key admits he has slowed down a bit and his right arm – his flipping hand – gets a bit arthritic from time to time. But he isn’t sure he will ever retire.
“It’s fun. It keeps me active, too, in a physical sense. I enjoy working with the kids. I enjoy talking with the people. I’ve seen boyfriend and girlfriend come in and then I’ve seen them come in (years later) as a grandpa and grandma. You never know who comes through that door.”
Actors Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn frequented Webers when they had a summer home in Muskoka. Retired hockey stars Frank Mahovolich and Darryl Sittler have eaten here. Singers Shania Twain, Gord Downie and at least one member of the Barenaked Ladies band have also made this their pit stop. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even stopped by this summer.
In the perpetual rush hour that has evolved on Highway 11, Webers has maintained a formula that McParland calls “Keep It Simple, Sally.” You get burgers – hamburgers or cheeseburgers, or triple-patty cheeseburgers if you’re feeling particularly hungry – and hot dogs, fries, drinks and shakes.
Don’t go looking for bacon or lettuce, gluten-free buns or condiments such as malt vinegar, though.
Imagine how a multi-page menu might stretch the already-long lines that form every day, negating the effect a complex of eight rail cars and dozens of employees and 100 picnic tables intended to flow customers through the place.
Even so, everything changes.
Weber, Jr., first came up with a marketing plan that’s made Webers frozen patties available in scores of grocery stores across the province. Now, people far from cottage country can enjoy Webers burgers in their backyards.
Rennie has purchased land adjacent to Webers and, soon, a renovated house on site will open as a Starbuck’s. He has also bought 90 acres on Highway 400, on the way to the Mount St. Louis Moonstone ski resort, with the intent of building a four-season Webers there.
In the meantime, there are thousands of burgers a day to be made and an equal number of customers.
“When you’re in the ‘people engagement’ business, you’re constantly involved. You’re constantly making new introductions every 10 seconds, taking orders, making change for customers. We’re very fortunate to have a great group of employees, many of whom return each and every year.
“The days go by quickly. I’m having a blast.”