Canada’s Muslim population is growing, and reaching them requires halal options. Fortunately, meeting that demand is easier than you think
By Salima Jivraj
Here’s a term that might be new to you: Census Metropolitan Area or CMA. That’s what Statistics Canada calls a major urban centre and its surrounding area. Amongst the largest CMAs are Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa-Gatineau. Each of these has a population of about 1.3 million — keep that number in your head.
Statistics Canada also tells us that around 3 per cent of Canada’s population currently identifies as Muslim. By 2030, assuming the growth trend continues, that will rise to 6.6 per cent. From that, we can estimate the population of Muslims in Canada right now is approaching 1.3 million. If they were a CMA, they’d be in the top ten in the country, and comfortably ahead of places like Winnipeg and Hamilton. Now, imagine that city’s worth of people and then think about the fact virtually none of them will eat in your restaurant — wait, what?
A 2018 Dalhousie study estimated that Canada has roughly 2.6 million vegetarian and 850,000 vegan consumers. Wisely, restaurant operators have accommodated them rather than leave money on the table. Now, it’s time to meet a new market demand: halal.
It’s Not You; It’s Your Food
For practicing Muslims, there are culturally-specific rules that govern how they live their lives. These are assigned to one of two categories, halal or haram. Things that are halal are permissible (the definition of the word, which is Arabic), and things that are haram are not.
That, of course, is an oversimplification of the reality, but it’s sufficient for our purposes here. And, as with any religion, some people adhere more strictly to the guidelines than others. But for the restaurateur or foodservice operator, there are some basic things you should know about food, halal, and Muslim consumers.
For food to be halal, it must meet certain requirements, and most of them apply to meat. First and foremost, animals must be raised, slaughtered, and processed according to certain standards. That means sourcing livestock that’s ethically cared for, and individually blessed. Also, there can be no cross-contamination with non-halal meat. Some foods, however, are never halal, no matter their provenance or handling. Pork is a major category of non-halal food, and alcohol is another. Others are always halal, like fruits and vegetables, grains, and nuts. Some foods that are seemingly halal might carry hidden animal by-products which would make the food non-halal.
The bottom line is this: if your food is not halal, a Muslim consumer won’t eat it no matter how many fantastic reviews your restaurant has.
How do I Know What’s Halal?
So, you’ve decided you’d like to attract Muslim consumers to your restaurant. Good choice! The first thing to know is Muslims aren’t so different from other Canadians. Some families are now into their third and even fourth generation in this country. They love to dine out with friends and family, and they want the same options the rest of us have. That means halal steakhouses, halal Italian and French cuisine, and halal burgers and fries. And it means you may not have to start your menu from scratch to bring them in. First, though, you need to figure out what is and what isn’t halal. Or do you?
For anyone outside the community, the subtle nuances of halal can be difficult to grasp fully. For example, while alcohol, like beer, is not permitted, it’s probably acceptable in something like pickled cabbage where it occurs naturally, and without intent or quantity to cause intoxication. Plus, as new technologies and products become available, each one must be assessed by halal certification bodies to determine whether it’s halal. Where do you even begin?
Fortunately, there are organizations in Canada that work with manufacturers and ingredient suppliers and provide halal certification to food manufacturers, so you don’t have to figure it out yourself. Some of them work alongside companies, training them and guiding them, and determining if the end product is halal or not.
Does that mean becoming a halal-friendly restaurant is as simple as buying halal-certified products? Not quite.
Getting Ready to go Halal
Within your restaurant, halal standards will have to be maintained. You’ll recall from earlier that halal meat must not come in contact with non-halal meat? That goes for your storerooms, freezers, refrigerators, prep and cooking spaces. This may require a rethinking of how your kitchen is set up and the way it operates. You may even need a separate cooking surface, because halal meat cannot follow non-halal meat on a grill, for example. At a minimum, you’ll have to have dedicated pots, pans, and utensils, or maintain a rigid protocol for sanitization.
If you think that seems overwhelming, you’re probably not alone. That’s because, conceptually, it seems entirely unfamiliar. The thing is, though, it’s probably not. Do you have vegan or vegetarian options on your menu? How about kosher, or gluten-free? Halal isn’t so different once you put your mind to it, and in this day and age, most food businesses wouldn’t dream of excluding those food tribes. Besides, your vegetarian items might be halal already.
Don’t worry, though; you don’t have to take on this journey alone. Many of those same halal certifying bodies work with restaurants as well as processors and manufacturers. The best among them will partner with a restaurant to develop a plan, including where to source ingredients, how to run your back-of-house and even details such as hygiene and conduct.
There’s a learning curve, to be sure, and it is a commitment. You’ll likely need to provide a complete rundown of your current suppliers and ingredients lists for everything you use. It will require staff training and a general reassessment of most of your processes. In the end, though, it may not be as difficult as you might guess, and your restaurant can earn the right to display halal certification of its own. That’s the call to the Muslim community that you’re open for their business.
What’s great about adding halal to your menu offerings is you’ve made your restaurant available to Muslims without sacrificing any of your current clientele. Now, Muslims can choose to dine out with their non-Muslim friends at your establishment.
Let’s take it back to the statistics for a minute and remind ourselves why this is a viable strategy. The number of Muslims in Canada more than doubled between 1991 and 2001, and nearly doubled again between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. Muslims will soon outnumber ethnic Chinese in Canada based on StatCan projections, and they currently exceed the total of self-identified vegans — 800,000 according to data collected by Dalhousie University last year. If you operate in one of Canada’s large CMAs — remember those? — chances are you have a significant pool of Muslim consumers to draw from, for that’s where most of them have settled. They have money, they’re well-integrated and they’re ready to eat.
To be realistic, merely putting your halal certification in the window and on your website won’t unleash a torrent of new Muslim patrons. This is a group that relies heavily on word-of-mouth to build trust. Put your name out there into the community by being active on social media and participating in local events. Working with a multicultural marketing agency may increase your visibility even more quickly and fluidly.
Pay attention to the details, too, and not just the ones on the menu. Give your new customers an environment they’ll be comfortable in. Many Muslim families in Canada are large, and they enjoy dining together en masse. Be ready with high chairs, baby changing stations, and kids’ menus. Any place their kids are happy to eat is a place parents will reward with repeat visits.
And remember, as was alluded to earlier, there’s no need to reinvent your menu. You’re likely best off not trying to replicate traditional Muslim dishes; there are probably already restaurants your would-be customers already know about that prepare them more authentically than you’re likely to do. Instead, keep doing what you’re doing, but tailor it to their requirements – just as you would for anyone else with specific dietary needs.
Salima Jivraj is the Account Director and Multicultural Lead of Nourish Food Marketing, a marketing agency that specializes in Food and Beverage, working across all aspects of the food ecosystem. Clients include producers, processors, retailers, manufacturers, food service and restaurants. Nourish has offices in Toronto, Guelph, and Montreal. Want to know more? Salima can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or sign-up for the agency’s monthly newsletter at nourish.marketing.