Muslim month of fasting sees rise in
Kwame Freeman, right, an employee of Salem's Market and Grill in the Strip District, his wife, Shukira, and son Musa have a late buffet dinner for those Muslims who are breaking the sunrise-to-sunset Ramadan fast. Photo:Bill Wade/Post-Gazette
Mehmet Gurakar, the president of McKeesport halal meat producer MRG Food LLC, has been fasting during the day for more than two weeks. But working alongside livestock and beef, veal and goat carcasses doesn't quite pique his appetite.
"We are at the beginning of the food chain," he said. "It doesn't make us very hungry."
Mr. Gurakar, who is from Turkey, is observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began in late July. Partaking in the Ramadan fast is one of the five pillars of Islam, and observant Muslims do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset during the month.
During Ramadan, demand for halal meat -- which is slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law -- is up at local grocers and producers, as members of Pittsburgh's Muslim communities look to prepare meals for the nightly break-fast meals.
Approximately 6,000 Muslims participate in local congregations in Allegheny County, according to a 2010 estimate from the Association of Religion Data Archives, though more live in the surrounding areas. Muslims form a small portion of the region's seven-county metropolitan population of 2.4 million, as counted by the U.S. Census.
As a result, there are few halal grocers in the area and, according to Mr. Gurakar, only two other halal meat distributors. Salem's Market and Grill -- a halal butcher, prepared foods counter and grocer in the Strip District -- offers fresh butchered meat and international products. Some larger area chains carry halal meat from national outlets.
Smaller halal food operators must strike a balance between serving their customers and fulfilling their own requirements as Muslims.
While many Muslims do not eat halal meat during most of the year, more will choose to do so during Ramadan, said Abdullah Salem, the supervisor at Salem's. Moreover, customers are more likely to cook the break-fast meal at home for family and guests.
MRG and Salem's experienced a rush during the first two weeks of the holy month, as customers were stocking up. Salem's, which purchases halal meat from MRG, prepared for Ramadan a month before it began, while Mr. Gurakar said business was up 20 percent at MRG Food during the first weeks of the holy month.
"I guess people ... like to get ready for Ramadan, like they are kind of anxious or kind of excited," he said.
MRG -- which provides meat for restaurants and grocers in Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, N.Y., and Pittsburgh -- stayed open late twice in the last two weeks to meet demand.
Though volume and prices vary from week to week, Mr. Gurakar said his company might slaughter and deliver 200 lambs, 200 goats, 30 to 35 cows and 10 to 15 calves on a given week, and his employees have the capacity to produce three times that number.
At Salem's, business in the grocery store probably doubles or triples during the month, and Mr. Salem said he keeps the shop stocked with bulk food. "We've bought so many groceries that we can't pay for it until after Ramadan," he said.
Salem's has also adjusted its hours and offerings to meet the demand.
Every day, the store caters for the break-fast meals -- or iftars -- of two or three mosques, which serve between 100 and 200 people. And it is staying open later, serving food until 10:15 p.m. instead of its usual 8 p.m. closing time.
During those extra hours, Salem's hosts a $13.99 buffet. Usually, around 30 people come; many others will opt for the free iftars at local mosques. "We're competing with free," Mr. Salem said.
This is the first year that Salem's has offered the buffet, which includes dates, kabobs, salad and more. Mr. Salem said he switched from the normal counter service to the buffet primarily for his employees, who in past years have had to serve customers until 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m., extending their own fasts even further.
"We would make more profit if we didn't have a buffet and just let [customers] order out," he said.
Still, he sees potential for expansion. Depending on how many non-Muslims come for the buffet, he is considering making a part of its offerings during the rest of the year.
Because about half the customers of Salem's are Muslim, the late afternoon lunch crowd has been smaller lately. Increased demand elsewhere in the store helps make up for that deficit.
Salem's also accepts donations on behalf of people looking to gain "rewards" during Ramadan. In Islam, it is believed that giving food to a fasting person provides the donor with the equivalent reward of the fasting person, without diminishing the latter person's own reward. As a result, Salem's will receive donations to be used to distribute meat to mosques.
Mr. Salem estimated that the store received between $10,000 to $15,000 worth of donations during the first week. "All rewards are [multiplied] during Ramadan," he said.
In the end, he said, the holy month is actually less profitable for his store than other months. "We do way better in Christmas than we do in Ramadan," he said.
Among the business practices that he employs during Ramadan -- which might not be seen as the most cost-effective -- are the fact that his company prides itself on providing for people who might not be able to afford the full cost. Salem's prices are negotiable, and not just during Ramadan.
The flexible approach is reflective of the bartering conducted in many countries besides the U.S., Mr. Salem said. In the store, a wall holds the names of customers who haven't paid but said they will the next time.
Mr. Salem views the store as a community service. Because it is one of the few halal meat providers in the area, he said he offers especially low prices so he won't be accused of taking advantage of customers during this month. "People want us to match a Sam's Club price," he said.
In addition, he pays employees overtime to handle the extra demands generated by the holy month, and then they often take paid vacation immediately before and after Ramadan.
It is a tough month of work in any case. At MRG Food, Mr. Gurakar's physically demanding work is made even more difficult by virtue of the fact th at he cannot quench his thirst during the day. He is the only Muslim, and therefore the only person fasting, on the company's "kill floor."
Salem's employees, who are all Muslim, take one- or two-hour breaks because of the extended hours and the difficulty of working while fasting. Moreover, because they are serving food and cleaning up until well after sunset, they cannot break the fast with their families.
But it's all worth it in Mr. Salem's view.
"You can't count for the blessings," he said
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette