CHICAGO - First, the new owner of a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken began trying to lure shoppers in the heart of South Asian Devon Avenue. Then a Brown's Chicken and Pasta popped up a few blocks away.
It seemed a strange juxtaposition--all-American fast food, elbow-to-elbow with pungent cuisine from the other side of the globe.
But the secret ingredient both outlets offered was halal, the Islamic analog of kosher, a promise that the meat has been slaughtered and prepared in accordance with Islamic teachings.
That, in turn, has sparked a neighborhood contest over whose fried chicken is truly halal, or more halal--a 21st Century collision of American marketing, immigrant tastes and age-old customs.
The fried chicken wars on Devon underscore the growing power of the Muslim market.
In Muslim countries, fast-food giants like McDonald's, Pizza Hut, KFC and Burger King have long served halal meat and have become popular teen hangouts.
In the West, chains are only now picking up on the halal market. McDonald's has two halal franchises in Dearborn, Mich., one in Australia and is considering one in Britain. A Subway location in New Jersey adopted halal about two years ago. Outback Steakhouse recently announced it offers halal lamb from New Zealand.
The halal food business is estimated to be a $16 billion industry in the U.S.
"What you're seeing is the impact of the second generation," said Shahed Amanullah, founder of zabihah.com, a Web site that reviews restaurants serving halal. "If you were born and raised here, your ethnic food is American food. ... This second generation is demanding halal fried chicken, pizzas and Philly subs."
Kids prefer Brown's
Their parents were buying traditional meat and spices, but 10-year-old twins Subhan and Shan Islam and their sister, Ana Shoaib, 5, dragged the grownups into the Devon Avenue Brown's this week for chicken tenders and fries.
"We come here because it's slaughtered according to Islamic ritual, and the kids like it," said their mom, Gulshan Shoaib, speaking in Urdu.
That may be music to the ears of Muslims who open halal fast-food chains, but the operators of KFC and Brown's quickly learned that entering the market was not as easy as it looked.
Afzal Lokhandwala opened a halal KFC franchise in west suburban Lombard three years ago, near a mosque and a large Muslim community.
Challenge halal claim
"From day one, it started," he said. "People were coming in and saying, `This is not halal. This is not hand-slaughtered. This is machine slaughtered.'"
In Islam, the term halal applies to anything that is permitted. Most food and drink can be halal, except for alcohol and pork. But there is no consensus on exactly what is halal, and what is not, and American Muslims face a variety of interpretations.
Chicken and beef can be halal, but most Muslims believe it must be zabihah, or slaughtered according to Islamic ritual, said Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.
Zabihah calls for the animal to be blessed, then slaughtered, its throat cut and blood drained. But Muslims are divided about whether that can be reconciled with poultry-plant practices of machine-slaughter and stunning the animal before slaughter.
Still others are satisfied with kosher products, believing the Jewish rites are similar enough, or do not worry about zabihah at all, Mujahid said.
Lokhandwala figured he was safe three years ago with the Lombard shop, when he found that the poultry supplier KFC used also had halal operations for meat it supplied to Singapore, which has a significant Muslim population.
But almost immediately, people began questioning the authenticity of his halal meat. An organization called the Muslim Consumer Group questioned the coating ingredients and processing practices used by KFC and its supplier. Soon, a heated debate about Lokhandwala's restaurant played out on the pages of zabihah.com, the halal food reviewer.
Reject machine slaughter
"According to Islamic law, we do not accept machine slaughter," said Syed Rasheeduddin Ahmed, founder and president of the Muslim Consumer Group.
Ahmed said he talked to the chicken supplier, Gold Kist, and learned that a Muslim mechanic said the blessing.
"He just stands there and the machine slaughters 142 chickens per minute," Ahmed said. "He cannot say `Allahu Akbar' [God is great] for each one."
Lokhandwala devoted his franchise's Web site to proving that his fried chicken is halal. He published slaughtering guidelines from Malaysia, where national authorities accept machine slaughtering as halal. Gold Kist says it has halal certification from the Al Huda Islamic Center in Athens, Ga.
And business was good in Lombard, so Lokhandwala jumped at the opportunity last April to buy a KFC franchise located on Western Avenue, just north of the Devon shopping district. He partnered with the owner of a well-known Pakistani restaurant on Devon, Sabri Nehari, which was destroyed in a fire in November.
Meanwhile, the Usmania Group, which owns another popular chain of restaurants on Devon, had begun building a Brown's on Devon, which opened in August.
"People are very orthodox in Chicago," says Mohammad Yaqoob, one of the owners of the Brown's on Devon. "They want to eat zabihah, not just halal."
Brown's, a local chain, allowed Yaqoob and his partners to find their own vendor for halal meat. Brown's President Frank Portillo and his daughter also researched the ins and outs of the halal food industry.
"In all honesty, I had never heard of halal and zabihah chicken," Portillo said. "The Muslim community is growing, and they're looking to eat American-type food. It's just a real growth market."
To avoid the controversy surrounding the KFC, the Brown's partnership decided to meet the highest zabihah standards it could.
They selected a Muslim-owned processor certified by the Shari'ah Board of America, one of the most conservative certifying agencies. The chicken they bought was said to be grain-fed and hand-slaughtered.
A sign projecting outside Brown's announces that Muslims can be 100% certain they are eating zabihah meat there, processed according to the strictest Islamic requirements. Another sign praises Allah, indicating the franchise is Muslim-owned. Inside, posters by the cashier describe the handling of the meat, how the chickens are fed and slaughtered.
That's one of the reasons Syed Ahmed, 25, of Chicago, eats here twice a week. Variety is another.
"We get bored of rice and daal (lentil curry)," he said.
A few blocks north, Mir Hussain, 55, on a trip to Chicago with his family from Warren, Ohio, sat down at the KFC with several buckets of the Colonel's finest. He said he skipped traditional Indian restaurants on Devon because Ohio has no halal KFC, and the family eats Indian food all the time.
Also, Hussain said he has no problems with machine-slaughtered meat.
"In mass production, it's very difficult to do it by hand," he said. "When we see that it's halal, we have to trust that it is."
(Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune, January 4, 2007)