Redeeming the Burger, One at a Time

Redeeming the Burger, One at a Time

With no advertising and a first location in an unremarkable stretch of Queen Street East, The Burger’s Priest, “a classic American cheeseburger joint,” has become one of the most popular burger places in Toronto.

With no advertising and a first location in an unremarkable stretch of Queen Street East, The Burger’s Priest, “a classic American cheeseburger joint,” has become one of the most popular places to get a burger in Toronto. Owner and operator, Shant Mardirosian (BA '03), when asked why he does not advertise, responds with a biblical story. “Genesis 1-11 is this story of God creating, man messing up, and the second they mess up, they try to make themselves good again. It comes to its climax at the Tower of Babel where they say, ‘let us make names for ourselves.’ After that you have God saying to Abraham, ‘I’m going to make your name great.’...God makes names great and we don’t.” After less than two years of operation, the Burger’s Priest has two locations and accolades in multiple print and web publications. However, Shant did not become a successful restaurant owner overnight.

Years before he would open his own restaurant, Shant came to Tyndale thinking that he would become a pastor. During his time at Tyndale, he became close friends with two other students and with Stephen Thomson, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University College. “Stephen Thomson, who was mentoring us, kept telling us one thing,” says Shant. “It was all about our identity; who are you? Who are you in Jesus Christ? It was about our identity in Jesus Christ. It seemed like my two friends got it, but for me it was like he was talking in riddles.” In 2003, after Shant’s graduation ceremony, Professor Thomson said to him, “So how do you feel?” “And I said,” Shant recalls, “‘Well, I’m a waiter,’ and I started to cry because all my other friends were going into the ministry and doing their thing. He looked at me and said, ‘A waiter is what you do, it’s not who you are.’ I never forgot it.”

Shant continued to work in various positions in the food service industry for four years. In 2006 he went to New York City on a whim with a friend to get a "real burger." After driving through the night, he ended up eating a burger in a famous New York eatery at 10 a.m. “I remember having this ‘wow’ moment of thinking this is what I want to do.” He began to look into living in New York and working in restaurants there to learn.

“During this time I was constantly going back to Tyndale and talking to Stephen Thomson, trying to deal with where I was at,” Shant recalls. “I kept telling him, ‘I’m going to come back to school,’ ‘I’m going to do my master’s and he would just look at me...but at one point he said, ‘Our friendship has become stagnant.’ I didn’t understand what he meant. He said, ‘Well, we need to go our separate ways.’ At that point he ended the friendship...I didn’t understand it then, but what he was saying was that he loved me so much that he knew that he needed to end it for me to understand what he had been saying for so long. I left his office pretty shocked and then I left for New York.” Shant did not tell Professor Thomson that he was heading to New York.

In 2007, he lived in Manhattan for eight months working in several different burger places, learning and observing. While working there, he witnessed broken relationships, alcoholism, and he overheard conversations about cheating boyfriends and girlfriends. “Something just clicked,” Shant says, “and I understood what Thomson had been trying to say. It was about being a man and seeing what’s wrong with the world and doing what you can to fix it in your own little way...I called him and I said, ‘I get it’ and we had a big conversation and it was pretty tearful and we’ve been friends ever since.”

On the Burger Priest’s website there is a description of the gospel message and links to a local church in the community. “We want to have a public proclamation point, so we use the website for that and we just try and make that a place where it’s safe. You can go there and no one sees you looking at it; nobody knows you’re looking at it, we’re not putting it in people’s faces; we are not forcing them.” Response from the community has been very positive. “I get great responses,” he says, “a lot of people come and say, ‘I found a great church because of you.’”

Now Shant is “redeeming the burger one at a time,” and, he says, “we also are going to try to redeem everything else in the industry...We just try and be good. We do the best we can in as many areas as possible. We fail a lot, but we are trying.” He makes sure to pay his suppliers on time, pay employees well, and serve good food made from quality ingredients. “This idea of fulfilling your ministry—finding what you’re good at and doing it—is the best. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else right now.”