U.S. caters to Muslim tastes

Islamically permitted food, goods being sold in mainstream stores

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Best Buy executives stood by their decision. The company saw the holiday greeting as part of a larger goal of reaching consumers from different cultures. Soon, Muslims started calling to thank Best Buy and set up a Facebook page honoring the company, which continues to acknowledge Muslim holidays.

“It’s a very viable customer segment,” said Zainab Ali, senior marketing manager with the money transfer company MoneyGram, which ran a special Ramadan promotion this year for Muslims in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. “You just need to get over some of the fear and look at them as just another consumer.”

The potential for profit is attracting more companies to the idea.

This year, Ogilvy & Mather, the global advertising firm, started an international Islamic branding consultancy called Ogilvy Noor that includes an emphasis on U.S. Muslims. (Noor means light in Arabic.) Muslims came to the United States in large numbers for doctorates, engineering and medical degrees after the federal government eased immigration quotas in the 1960s. Studies have found that a significant percentage of Muslims are better educated and wealthier than other Americans.

Joohi Tahir, vice president of marketing and sales for Crescent Foods, the halal chicken producers based in Chicago, said Wal-Mart executives approached Crescent Foods two years ago looking for a halal chicken supplier, then invited Crescent executives to Wal-Mart headquarters in Arkansas to advise them on reaching Muslim consumers.

That same year, Wal-Mart opened a supercenter in Dearborn, Mich., an area with one of the largest Muslim and Arab populations in the country. The store is geared for Mideast consumers, with a range of halal products, including specialty foods.

“Mainstream is coming to halal,” Mr. Tahir said.

Wal-Mart spokesman Bill Wertz said the merchandise in each store can vary according to the needs of the surrounding community, so it is difficult to know the exact number of U.S. stores that carry halal products. But several in Michigan and at least one store in Canada have advertised that they offer some halal items.

Manufacturers entering the field hope they can appeal to non-Muslims as well.

Jack Acree, executive vice president of American Halal Co., which produces the Saffron Road products, emphasizes that the entrees are not only halal, but also all-natural and humanely farmed, and free of antibiotics and hormones.

“Muslims are highly educated and live in metro areas, and they’re shopping with us already,” said Errol Schweizer, senior global grocery coordinator for Whole Foods. “If we have a customer base where there’s a big Muslim population, it makes sense for us to service that population.”

Mr. Schweizer would not answer directly when asked whether anyone complained to the company over its Muslim outreach. He said only that halal foods will be judged like any other products — by whether the items sell.

For Muslims, the issue is not just a matter of convenience. Recognition by major companies is an important sign of acceptance as they struggle to establish themselves in the U.S. They are following in the footsteps of American Jews, who struggled for decades for mainstream acceptance of kosher food — and Judaism.

Despite the sometimes unfriendly climate for Muslims, Mr. Evans, of the World Halal Forum, said it is inevitable that a large number of businesses will reach out to Muslim consumers, given the wealth and size of the Muslim population — more than a billion people worldwide — and their presence in the West.

“It isn’t a question of whether they’re going to do it,” Mr. Evans said. “It’s a question of where and when and how.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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