Like the Muslim community in most American cities, Chicago is awash in fund-raising dinners for various causes through winter, fall, and spring. Come summer, the socializing grows even more frenzied – fundraisers fall by the wayside because everyone is too busy either having or attending a wedding and its series of celebrations. Graduations and Ameens, marking the completion of the first reading of the Quran, too, pack weekend after weekend. Yes, Chicago has two seasons – winter and party season! And keeping up with all these events, year-round, are caterers offering halal menus.

Twenty years ago, in large cities such as Chicago, USA and Toronto, Canada it used to be that if you were having a wedding or any special event, you’d gather your nearest and dearest and get many hands to cook for the event. Gradually, individual caterers who knew cultural food well and cooked it to perfection stepped in, taking party orders and serving halal. A single independent caterer would cook halal cuisine for 400 people on average, per wedding celebration.

But if trends in the halal food industry are any indication, all that is very 1990’s. Outsourcing has come to banquet halls as well as Four and Five Star hotels, and we are not talking about the voice at the other end of reservations or customer service alone.

It began when banquet halls, slowly but steadily over the past 10 years, saw the opportunity for economic growth if they would permit outside catering. They got in on the action with a list of pre-selected halal caterers that clients, using their banquet halls, could choose to work with.

Scarborough, Ontario based event planner, Sadat Hussain Khan, is riding high on the success of a three day wedding extravaganza, with over 500 guests, at Chandani Convention Center in Mississauga, Ontario. “I was organizing three weddings that were close in dates and I took all three families with me for the tasting at the same time, to the list of (halal) caterers the Convention Center had agreed to,” says Mr. Khan. Wedding season is a busy time of the year, indeed.

In the last couple of years, Four and Five Star hotels, which once would never have allowed outside catering, too have seen business opportunities. Be it the Sheraton, the Hyatt or a Radisson, they are attracting halal consumers with promises of the perfect halal ‘outsourced’ menu. Ayesha Sayani, a community event organizer, responsible for helping manage the Zindagi Trust fundraiser in Dallas, Texas concurs. She said Galleria, Dallas, Double Tree, and Hilton Anatole were all willing to have outside caterers. In previous years, her venue for an event would have been a local community center – the route most often taken for halal parties a decade ago. “I have seen things changing,” she says. “Hotels seem well aware that there is a demand for halal food and the one’s I have spoken to have been very receptive to us having a halal menu. They have pre-approved lists of halal restaurants where we can cater from or they purchase the halal meat if they are preparing the meal themselves.”

The caveat? The hotels must have large banquet halls to be able to accommodate 400 – 800 guests, normal for a South Asian and Middle Eastern weddings.

Chicago-based Oliveaire Artisan Events and Meetings very existence reflects the opportunities in halal, especially when it comes to South Asian and Middle Eastern events. The company plans events and connects hotels including the likes of Hyatt Regency, O’Hare and Westin, Lombard, both in the Chicago area, to South Asian-American and Middle Eastern-American brides and grooms looking to have halal cuisine at their wedding.

“In the past three years, our volume of Muslim and Middle Eastern weddings and South Asian events have captured 45% of our annual business. Our community of 25 Chicagoland preferred venues accept outside catering options in order to provide religious and ethnic restricted meals. Oliveaire has approved halal caterers to provide meals for these events,” says Mahvish Bhatty, an event planner with Oliveaire.

Maggie Menozzi Sales Manager for weddings and large social events, at the Chicago Sheraton, has seen business rise by 50% since they allowed outside catering in 2008. The first year they took that path, they had 12-14 ethnic weddings. The following year they hosted 30 weddings. “The Sheraton does have a list of pre-selected halal caterers but are also willing to go with someone the bride and groom recommend,” says Ms. Menozzi. “We have a separate kitchen dedicated for special events and banquets. The halal food is brought in already prepared by the caterers to this specific kitchen and served out of it. The question of cross contamination does not even arise.”

“We work closely with the catering restaurants to maintain the integrity of the supply chain. If it is an ethnic menu, Sheraton will not necessarily offer to make the food on site, because there are outside caterers who excel in making those dishes. An American halal menu can be cooked on-site at Sheraton, with proper sourcing of halal meat and other ingredients,” Ms. Menozzi says.

IFANCA clients such as Cargill Better Beef, an IFANCA halal-certified company based in Canada, is a significant supplier to Muslim-owned halal meat stores, across North America. In recent years, businesses such as Restaurant Depot and Costco have begun carrying halal, as well. American Muslims have taken to organizing Eid and other parties at mainstream restaurants, and are guaranteed by restaurant management that halal alone will be served. Sushi Samba of Chicago, a hip and happening restaurant serving Japanese and Brazilian cuisine was the venue of a sold-out 4th of July gathering organized by the Council of American Muslim Professionals (CAMP), this summer. IFANCA is often approached by clients to assist them in selecting the right suppliers and caterers. IFANCA has also created guidelines to create halal compliant kitchens.