Communal dining is impossible with COVID-19, and halal butchers, restaurants, mosques, and mutual aid organizations are trying to distribute meals the best they can.

By Ahmed Ali Akbar
May 21, 2020
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“I don’t know if humanity, in Ramadan, has ever gone through something like this,” said Adnan Durrani, CEO of Saffron Foods, a halal food company. This year, Ramadan began just a few weeks after most of the world went into isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Observant Muslims spend their days waking up before first light for a suhoor meal and abstaining from food, water, and sex until the sundown maghrib prayer, where they break their fast with a date, water, and a meal called iftar. In many communities around North America, the fast-breaking is a community ritual and a chance to feed people generously. Mosques hold free dinners, families open their homes for friends and loved ones, and halal restaurants become a vital meet-up location. Those communal dining opportunities have been impossible with COVID-19, and halal butchers, restaurants, mosques, and mutual aid organizations in America have had to answer the question: How do we distribute meals to the community when most of the country is under stay-at-home orders?

“Halal food” is a shorthand used for food establishments that use meat that has been zabihah slaughtered, and doesn't refer to any particular type of cuisine. The industry primarily, although not exclusively, centers around meat upon which a zabiha slaughter was performed. In short, a prayer is said over the animal and its throat is sliced cleanly by a Muslim slaughterman, after which the blood is drained. In America, the various groups that make up the halal food economy have shifted their hours and increased sanitary protocols to observe social distancing, accommodated demands that change by day, and embraced free meal distribution as a way to accommodate an unprecedented Ramadan.

Asad Dandiya, a Columbia grad student who co-founded the aid group Muslims Giving Back, said, “even pre-pandemic and quarantine, [halal meat was] already difficult to find, or it was expensive. Isolation and quarantine has exacerbated the difficulty of accessing affordable halal meat.” He added, “we want to be able to fill that gap by providing for those who need it.” Ramadan is typically a time for increased generosity, and some Muslims pay their obligatory zakat almsgiving during the month. The pandemic has only made this more necessary, so various parts of the halal food economy are now finding ways to increase free meal distribution.

The group Dandiya co-founded has been giving warm meals to people experiencing homelessness in Manhattan, and distributing iftar meals and groceries to Brooklyn community members throughout Ramadan. “I don’t think of this as charity,” Dandiya said. “I think of this as solidarity."

At every level, the halal food economy has had to change their ways of interacting with customers. Adil Mohamed, Executive Director of the Flint Muslim Food Pantry, said that while they prefer their standard client-choice model where the families pick their own groceries, the pantry has begun pre-packing meals and delivered them to reduce contact. Mutual aid groups and mosques, which are often most active during Ramadan, have had to mobilize increased donations to match the demand from Muslim and non-Muslims families who have faced economic hardships due to COVID-19.

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Restaurants—both halal or not—have had to shift the most, reducing hours, furloughing staff, or closing down, and increasing charitable giving as interest in eating out is reduced. While people don’t eat out as much, restaurateurs are finding new ways to fill the gap.

“I have a restaurant next to a mosque. Why not feed the people?” Muhammad Jihad told me when I called him to discuss his plan to distribute free meals a few days before Ramadan. In the weeks leading up to the first fast of the Muslim holy month, Jihad closed off the dining room of his Atlanta-based halal restaurant, Springreens At the Community Cafe, and limited his hours to weekend pickups as sales dipped, leaving him struggling to pay his employees. But for Ramadan, he began opening daily for a two-hour dinner shift that was completely free. Jihad has raised over $15,000 for his program, #DriveThruIftar, which provides free takeout meals to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. “There’s a lot of people who are not at work and needing food. We’re gonna cook and serve food for everyone during Ramadan.” On the first day, Jihad said he had ten cars per line by the time service began at 6 p.m. By the weekend, he was feeding up to 500 people an evening with free plates of halal soul food.

Kashif Hafeez, co-owner of American-Pakistani restaurant BBQ King in Richardson, Texas, said that their traffic this year is also down. They are seeing about a 70% drop in business. Despite that, they have decided to stay open, keeping their typical Ramadan hours as well, serving customers until 4:30 a.m. to accommodate the suhoor meal. “For (the owners), we can survive,” Hafeez said. “But our employees cannot.” With COVID-19, they say the safety of their customers and employees are their number one concern this Ramadan. BBQ King has shifted to curbside capacity, and has continued to provide free iftar meals, as they have done for the past seven years.

The shift towards mutual aid, limiting hours and pay, and increased sanitation at Springreens is reflective of shifts happening this Ramadan around America’s halal food markets, a nearly $20-billion-dollar industry in 2016, according to Bloomberg. Shahed Amanullah, founder of Zabihah.com, said that there are nearly 8,000 businesses listed on his website, which has catalogued the industry for over two decades. Amanullah said there is usually a spike of activity during Ramadan of nearly 20-30% in activity. “Going out to halal restaurants in the West is our nightly meeting place, our town square.” But this year, the app has seen a nearly 50% drop in activity during Ramadan.

Amanullah said he has also seen restaurant closings rise on Zabiha.com during COVID-19. “We’re going to go from a typical 20-30 closures a month to over a 100 in May to a couple hundred closing in June in our database,” Amanullah said. Omar Anani, owner and chef at Saffron De Twah in Detroit closed his restaurant in mid-March. “Our sales were atrocious. They were like 80 bucks for the day,” Anani said. This decline came after the best season the restaurant had ever had—towards the end of 2019, the restaurant had been nominated for a James Beard award and was racking up local accolades. While they were early to implement sanitation efforts, it wasn’t enough, and the restaurant closed.

Anani quickly shifted to providing meals (via fundraising) for first responders and health care workers. He briefly considered reopening the restaurant for Ramadan, but eventually decided against it. “I can do more for my community, more for my people, if the restaurant is closed.” Anani said. “And it will allow me to feed the people that need food.” Saffron De Twah has served thousands of meals to 17 hospitals. During Ramadan, Anani added evening deliveries to try to provide halal meat for observant Muslims who would be breaking their fast while working at hospitals.

A volunteer at the #DriveThruIftar at Springreens At the Community Cafe in Atlanta.
Sharif Hassan

Mosques, often a place where community members go for dinners, are also finding ways to adapt to the circumstances. The Islamic Center of New York University, for instance, typically provides free halal dinners every night of Ramadan. Imam Latif, the Imam and director of the center, told me that this year, the center would not be providing those meals. “What we are hoping to do is start virtual opportunities for dinner and to direct people to provide funds to organizations that are providing free meals to people in need,” Latif said, referring to partners that are funding meals for Muslim and non-Muslim New Yorkers in need of financial support. “It’s not a reallocation of funds per se, but we’re going to redirect our efforts.” Other Masjids are closed for prayer, but have opened their storefront to provide pickup meals for community members.

But while restaurants are being hammered by reduced volume and often shifting to crowdfunded meal distribution, halal retailers and butchers are facing a different set of problems. “We have a distribution problem,” Amanullah said, referring to the network of family businesses that prop-up local communities around the United States. Hatim Mohibi, owner of halal grocer International Foods and Spices in Saginaw, Michigan, travels over an hour to get halal meat for his customers. He described the chaos of the early days of quarantine, waiting in line for nearly seven hours at his halal meat supplier, overwhelmed by people trying to stock up. For two weeks, he returned back to his shop empty handed. In that downtime, his customers had to find other suppliers of meat, often driving themselves to find butchers on their own. By Ramadan, he began combining orders with a local Indian restaurant, which picks up meat on his behalf. Mohibi also experienced shortages in dry products imported from overseas, and instead began purchasing more expensive, organic flours and spices than he usually stocks. “I am ordering extra stuff for at least a supply for two months, so at least we can survive during the month of Ramdan,” Mohibi said.

Diane Saleh, co-owner of organic farm and butchery Halal Pastures in Rock Tavern, NY, said her online order business is also rapidly increasing. “People were calling and asking us how they can place an order. We’ve definitely gotten a peaked interest in us as a farm,” Saleh said. “[I try] to put good food out there in accordance with Islamic principles. We’re doing our part to feed people tayyab [good, clean] foods.”

Saads Wholesale Meat in Detroit provides wholesale and retail halal chicken, beef, goat, lamb, and veal to customers throughout the Midwest and launched their online portal shortly before the stay-at-home orders were announced. Samar Saad, VP of Operations of Saad Meats in Detroit, told me that the company, which is a meat reseller and not a butcher, has had to adapt to circumstances that change day by day. Their wholesale business has suffered as restaurants have closed, so much so that even expensive cuts like steak that rarely drop in price, were becoming cheaper as people began to eat out less. On some days, customers line up outside for nearly an hour. Saad has set up markers on the sidewalk, provided gloves to customers when they enter, and masks to those who don’t have them. As Saad’s wholesale business decreased, they began renting out more trucks and delivery drivers so they could provide to retail customers who were struggling to find halal meat locally.

“I try to help anyone who calls in for an order for halal meat,” Saad said. She describes a group order from Mt. Pleasant that typically picks up—under stay-at-home, Saad suggested that a big enough order would allow the company to pay delivery drivers to make the 180-minute drive both ways. “We ended up taking orders for eight to nine families that day. [I do this] because I know they need halal [meat] and they can’t leave their houses. We’re doing our best to get it to everyone who needs it.”

As states begin to open back up, Ramadan practices may shift as well. But Muhammad Jihad isn’t deterred. He said he’s made a promise to do #DriveThruIftar for a whole month, which he intends to follow. He told me he’s unlikely to open back up full-time anytime soon, preferring to follow the advice of scientists rather than the government. “During Ramadan, a lot of things get revealed,” Jihad told me in the early days of Ramadan. “A lot of people’s true natures and intentions. The overall experience is humbling and exciting. I’ve honestly been having dreams about giving plates away. I want the community to know we were here to help, and that’s it.”