Thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims alike are expected to attend the inaugural I Heart Halal festival on Navy Pier, Chicago this weekend, an event that’s billed as the first halal lifestyle festival in America, Chicago Tribune reported.
Both nationally and in Chicago, the population of Muslims is increasing, and there’s a heightened awareness of and demand for halal food, which is prepared according to the dietary standards of Islamic law. Locally, that’s meant a a surge in sales for some independently owned restaurants and fast casual chains that sell halal food. And though the halal segment is still tiny compared with categories like organic and kosher, some food industry experts expect halal to grow nationally among both Muslim and non-Muslim consumers searching for food they consider to be more ethically and humanely sourced.
The I Heart Halal festival also comes after the election of President Donald Trump, who said “I think Islam hates us” during his presidential campaign and after taking office has banned visitors from five Muslim-majority countries.
“It’s a great time to create the right narrative around what is it that Muslims are contributing to the local economy, as well as the global economy,” said Asma Ahad, one of the festival’s organizers and director of halal market development for the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America.
Nationally, the number of Muslims has grown from about 2.35 million in 2007 to about 3.45 million last year, according to estimates from the Pew Research Center. By 2040, Muslims will replace Jews as the second largest religious group in the U.S., according to the nonprofit’s projections.
Generally speaking, halal food adheres to Islamic law on how animals should be slaughtered and prohibits other things, like pork and alcohol. Some consider the halal method of killing animals, which involves a prayer and swift, deep incision of the neck, to be more humane, though some animal welfare groups say animals should be stunned before slaughter.
Less than 1 percent of new food product launches last year in the U.S. had the halal claim, compared with about 42 percent for food labeled kosher, according to the Mintel Global New Products Database. But that is expected to grow as more people learn about halal certification, said Melanie Bartelme, a global food analyst for Mintel.
“U.S. consumers are interested in transparent, ethical foods, and halal certification may offer consumers reassurance about animal welfare and food safety, as the process is so closely monitored,” Bartelme said in an email.
Darren Tristano, CEO of CHD-Expert, a food marketing research firm, said the halal market is growing but still carries a stigma for some food companies reluctant to wade into matters some see as political or related to the Middle East.
“The big (restaurant) companies aren’t saying, ‘Hey, we need to get on this halal trend,’” Tristano said.
Still, some local chains have decided to do exactly that. David Friedman, founder and CEO of Chicago-based Epic Burger, said he decided to switch to halal beef and, subsequently, chicken, shortly after Trump was elected president. Friedman, who is Jewish, said he found Trump’s broadsides against Islam to be “deeply offensive and disturbing.”
“It was really a political statement,” Friedman said.
For others, halal is all about business. Rod Ferrari, director of operations of the Halal Guys franchise group in the Chicago area, said he was drawn to the concept for its growth potential. New York-based Halal Guys has two locations in the city currently, in the Loop and on the Gold Coast, and is opening another in Wicker Park on April 21, Ferrari said. The plan is to open 10 total in the Chicago area.
During a bustling lunch hour in the Loop Thursday, an ethnically diverse crowd filled the small Halal Guys restaurant.
“I like the food. That’s really about it,” said Joel Vander Vliet, an attorney who works nearby.
In West Rogers Park, business has also been booming at Karahi Corner, a Pakistani restaurant. Sales have grown 7 to 8 percent each year since the business opened almost four years ago, said co-founder Shiraz Najam. Some customers eat halal as part of their Muslim faith; others just appreciate the new experience, Najam said.
“A lot of young people come in and take pictures of the exotic food. … Chicago is a great hotbed of people of different cultures,” Najam said.
Halal Guys, Epic Burger and Karahi Corner are all vendors this weekend at the I Heart Halal festival.
A halal lifestyle is about more than just food, said Salman Chaudry, co-organizer of the festival. I Heart Halal will also feature panels, demonstrations and events on topics including fashion, travel, finance and Muslim identity.
The festival has attracted global interest, Chaudry said. A promotional ticket giveaway was won by a girl living in Pakistan.
“We were like, ‘OK, maybe we’ll just mail her a hat or something,’” Chaudry said, laughing.