Sunday, January 07, 2007

Big chains go Islamic

In the beginning, one version had to fit all eaters. Restaurant chains were founded on the principle of menu conformity, in part because patrons equated variation with unpleasant surprises, and largely to lower prices through mass production. Their burger was the burger you got, regardless of how you wanted it.

But in recent years, even the mass-market giants have eased their insistence on one choice for all. You can not only custom-spec your burger, but also opt for products that were developed for a particular sector of the market, be it the health-conscious or the skateboard set.

Now the industry’s mass producers are going further and addressing an inch-wide but rapidly expanding splinter of the U.S. marketplace: Followers of Islam. As the Chicago Tribune reported last week, a number of the major chains, from KFC to McDonald’s and Subway, are revamping their recipes to offer signatures that conform to Islamic dietary law. That entails using halal meat, or the flesh of chickens and cattle that are slaughtered in an approved fashion.

And don’t forget lamb. Outback now offers a dish made with a type of New Zealand lamb that qualifies as halal.

It’s not as if a halal chicken is perceivably different from a typical unsanctioned bird, as I can attest from personal experience. At least once a week, deputy editor Paul Frumkin and I head down the street here in New York for some halal chicken. We could get it from any of probably 15 carts within a half-mile radius.

We couldn’t care less that the chicken topping our rice platters is halal. But halal choices tend to be offered in New York—and presumably a number of other major cities—by Middle Eastern immigrants who cook in the style of their homelands. That means marinated and highly spiced proteins garnished with fiery or palate-cooling sauces, and often both. The chicken tastes no different per se, but vendors of the halal version tend to spice it distinctively.

The U.S. chains experimenting with halal choices are holding to their current recipes; they’re merely using halal beef or chicken in place of the non-blessed variety. And those variations have been extremely limited in scale. McDonald’s has two halal outlets, according to the Tribune story, and other press reports indicate that KFC also has only two halal outlets. Subway reportedly has a lone outlet, in New Jersey.

But those limited endeavors have been enough to stir up controversy, because the halal designation requires those mega-volume feeders to veer far from their normal supply route. They have to buy the meat of animals that were blessed in accordance with Islamic law, then slaughtered in ritualistic fashion (i.e., the throat slit by a holy person, and the blood drained).

The halal KFC stores have been assailed by some Islamic believers for selling chicken that was blessed but mechanically slaughtered. The critics say that’s the reformed version of hala, not the true form. And that’s not kosher in their eyes.

It’s also unclear how a halal quick-service outlet would handle breakfast. Pork is patently a disqualifier, which means a store would have to forego bacon and pork sausage if it wanted to keep its halal designation.

The halal units opened thus far by the big U.S. quick-service chains are all in areas with sizeable Muslim populations. It remains to be seen how stores with that designation would be received in mainstream areas. But how could they miss? With the exception of some tweaks to the breakfast menu, non-Islamic customers would not have to sacrifice a thing. And they could count on the business of Frumkin and me, which is fairly considerable.

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