Ka-Ching! The Economic Impact of Ramadan
It was a chilly weekend in April as hungry diners waited to be seated at Usmania, which serves pungent halal Indian and Pakistani dishes. Inside the bustling Usmania restaurant on Chicago’s well-known Devon Avenue shopping district, managers and chefs were preparing for the Ramadan rush.
The Muslim holy month was more than three months away and would not start until July 20. But, for Usmania general manager Mohammad Yaqoob, plans were already underway for the increase in customers that Ramadan brings. Yaqoob said that in the week before Ramadan, the popular restaurant usually experiences a 20 to 25 percent jump in business.
“People know that during the month they will be fasting, so they come before Ramadan and tend to eat a little more to prepare for that,” Yaqoob said.
“I lose about 15 pounds myself,” he said with a laugh.
Due to Ramadan coinciding with the summer months this year, Yaqoob predicts an even bigger business boost.
“This year, Ramadan happens right during the summer, when schools are off and kids will be home, so we anticipate even more business,” Yaqoob said.
Usmania is not alone. As the Muslim-American community grows in large U.S. cities and sprawling suburbs, more restaurants, supermarket chains, and grocery stores are supplying halal meat and food products to meet the needs of this profitable new consumer niche.
According to some estimates, the halal food industry is a $16 billion business (IFANCA estimate is $20 billion). Notable supermarket chains such as Costco and Whole Foods have entered the halal market and begun supplying halal products on their shelves.
Two years ago, Wal-Mart signed a deal with Crescent Foods, an Oak Brook, IL based halal chicken producer, to supply products at seven Wal-Mart supercenters in Illinois including Niles, Mount Prospect, Waukegan, Plainfield, Aurora, Romeoville, and Oswego, besides stores in Michigan.
As more American businesses enter the halal market, some have become more educated on the rhythms of the Islamic religious calendar and noticed the sharp rise in business as Ramadan approaches.
At Valli Produce, a popular grocery chain in Chicago’s suburbs that specializes in international foods, the aisles are lined with many halal products serving that region’s growing Muslim community.
Frank Greco, manager of the Valli Produce store in suburban Glendale Heights, said he noticed an increase in Muslim shoppers as new mosques came to the area.
Indeed, less than two miles from the Glendale Heights’ Valli store, there are two mosques, the almost ready Islamic Education Center and Muslim Society, Inc.
“We try to pay attention to who our customers are,” Greco said. “So with the increase in Muslim places of worship, we have tried to introduce halal products. It’s a consumer that we would be wise to pay attention to.”
In recent years, Greco said he noticed that sales of halal products tend to rise before Ramadan. However, he said it is difficult to quantify because Valli doesn’t separate halal sales from other sales.
One fruit product that showed a dramatic rise during Ramadan is dates. During Ramadan, Muslims traditionally break their fast by eating at least one sweet date, a practice followed by the Prophet Muhammad*.
Greco said date sales at Valli Produce increased last year by 300 percent during Ramadan.
“There have probably been more increases, but it is hard to tell,” Greco said.
In addition to dates, other foods that tend to show sales increases during Ramadan are milk, vermicelli, nuts, sugar, salt, gram flour, wheat flour, garbanzo beans, phyllo dough, and yogurt which is used to make a traditional beverage lassi.
At Usmania, Yaqoob said the restaurant prepares for the rush by ordering larger quantities of food, especially the appetizer items most popular during Ramadan.
Yaqoob said diners enjoy breaking the fast by ordering dahi bara, fritters marinated in a spicy yogurt sauce; samosas; choley, curried chickpeas with spices; vegetable pakora; and fruit chaat.
During the last ten days of Ramadan, as Muslims prepare for Eid, Chicago’s Devon Avenue shopping district bustles with excitement. Muslim families crowd the area, shopping for clothes, groceries and other items. In those days, Usmania and other restaurants experience another surge in business.
“People are all excited,” Yaqoob said. “Everyone goes shopping and all the boutiques along Devon are busy. They come in here after they break the fast.”
“It is a holy month and a happy time,” he said.
* “Peace be Upon him” is recited at the mention of every Prophet’s name.
About the Writer: Margaret Ramirez has been a reporter for 15 years and written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Chicago Tribune. She is currently a journalism instructor at DePaul University.