It’s rare that a restaurant becomes so closely associated with its geographical location that it’s used as a landmark in traffic reports — but in south-central Ontario, it’s common to hear radio announcers proclaim that the highway clears up “after Webers.”
The beloved hamburger stand was founded in 1963 by Paul Weber Sr. on Highway 11, near Orillia. That’s when Mike “Keyman” McParland started work, and he’s never looked back.
McParland has been recognized as far afield as Vancouver, Greece, and Australia by former Webers regulars. He got his nickname because, he says, “customers would say, ‘You must be the key man, because you’re always here.’” (His licence plate reads “63KEY.”)
Webers can dish out 800 hamburgers an hour, or 8,000 in a single day. “We only had a few picnic tables to start with,” McParland says. “Now we have about 55 or 60. The area is quite large — maybe five acres on the northbound side of the highway, and then we own all the farmland across from where the bridge is.”
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“It’s quite the institution,” says engineer, designer, and Webers aficionado Chris Moorehead. “It’s very, very popular with cottagers — and I never had a cottage in Muskoka, but as a child, I lived in North Bay, and most of my relatives and friends lived in southern Ontario, so it was something we had to do on every trip. The burgers taste great, and once you go there, it becomes an institution.”
Moorehead’s favourite is a medium burger with “mustard, pickles, hot peppers — and that’s pretty much it,” he says. “The French fries are pretty good, too.”
Even as a child, Moorehead was impressed with the Webers system. “The one thing I can remember from these days was that it always had this huge, huge line,” he says. “I absolutely hate standing in line. The incredible thing about Webers was how fast the line moved. They would send out the staff to take your orders, so by the time you got to the front of the line, your food was ready.”
“We keep an assembly line going with the hamburgers and the fries and the buns,” McParland explains. “You go into the lineup, somebody takes your order, rings it up, takes the change back, then you get your order — thanks, have a nice trip!”
In fact, by the 1980s, Webers was becoming almost too successful. “It became so popular that people going south would start to park at the side of the road and cross the highway,” says Moorehead.
At first, McParland recalls, the Ministry of Transportation “installed a box-beam barrier all the way up, and then the people were climbing over that. So they installed a chain-link fence about a quarter mile.”
Then Paul Weber discovered that the pedestrian portion of a bridge that had formerly been used at the CN Tower site, in Toronto, was available. He purchased it, and it was installed across the highway in 1983. It was the first and only privately owned bridge over a public highway in Ontario.
“When we built the bridge, we also bought a couple of acres of ground to serve as a parking lot,” McParland says. Webers also added a number of disused railway cars, which still stand on the site. “We have eight of them, and we use them for the meat operations, one for the office, one for storage, one for the washrooms, one as an eatery, one for a staff car, and another for our freezers.”
These days, he says, “some of my customers have been in there maybe four generations, before they were married, and now they’ve got grandkids, and they’re married. Yesterday a lady came in and said, ‘You’ve been here at least 25 years.’ And I said to her, ‘I’ve been here 55 years!’ ‘You’re 71?’ she says. ‘You’re kidding!’ You get comments like that. It kind of perks you up.”