In New York, the city with the largest number of Muslims and Jews in the U.S., it’s a normal thing to see hungry people of all races, religions, and ethnicities lined up at the street corner halal meat cart or the local kosher deli.
But lately it’s not only worldly New Yorkers flocking to foods with these religious certifications. As mainstream shoppers seek out safer and more ethical foods, kosher and halal supermarket brands are working to appeal beyond their traditional niches.
"Ethnic foods have become much more popular. Looking at what Goya’s done. And people are much more concerned today with what they put in their bodies," says Mark Weinsten, CEO of the iconic kosher matzah, soup, and wine-maker Manischewitz, a company recently acquired by Sankaty Advisors, a credit affiliate of the private equity firm Bain Capital that wants to expand the company's sales to non-kosher consumers.
The company doesn't have good data on how many of its current customers keep kosher, but today, about 70% of the company’s products are sold in the kosher aisle. Going forward, Weinsten intends to appeal to more non-kosher and non-Jewish consumers by introducing new offerings, paying fees to be stocked on shelves alongside mainstream foods, and potentially updating the brand's advertising and packaging. After all, Weinsten says, macaroons are "a great dessert" even when it’s not Passover, and there’s no reason why Tam-Tam crackers couldn’t go well on a party cheese plate.
While Manischewitz has been producing kosher products for more than a century, religious food startups are also launching with mainstream missions in mind. For example, the startup GetKosher, which aims to be the "Seamless for kosher food delivery" and is currently expanding in New York City, aims to deliver kosher food to businesses, schools, and the non-Jewish masses. Its marketing frames kosher as part of a healthier lifestyle and safer, too, since it is prepared with more supervision in an age of foodborne illnesses.
And then there’s the success story of the American Halal Company, founded in 2010 by Adnan Durrani, a successful three-time entrepreneur in the food and beverage business. After debuting in Whole Foods stores, its brand, Saffron Road, is now available in 8,000 retail and supermarket stores across the U.S. The company offers halal frozen meals—everything from lasagna to Indian curries to Korean bimbimbap—as well as sauces, broths, and chickpea snacks, and now ranks third among natural frozen food sales, according to Nielsen.
Durrani, a practicing Muslim, launched Saffron Road because he saw a pent-up market demand to serve the relatively affluent and growing U.S. Muslim population in mainstream grocery stores. (Growing up around Washington, D.C., his family, like many Muslims, ate kosher as a substitute when they couldn’t buy halal.) Yet with Saffron Road also certifying many of its offerings non-GMO, gluten-free, and organic, Durrani clearly also had other consumers in mind as well. He believes that halal certification strengthens the appeal of his brand to those who would normally care about these other labels.
"Seventy percent of our consumers today are not even Muslim. They are ethically conscious consumers who are really looking for values," he says.
That’s not to say either kosher and halal food preparation necessarily equates to more sustainably raised, healthy, safer, or humane food. It has more to do with a perception of values, which may vary in truth depending on the individual manufacturer.
To Durrani, halal signifies not only standards about animal slaughter, but also the more mindful practice of sustainable, family farming systems and humane treatment of animals during their entire lives—a standard Saffron Road holds itself to even if it’s not the strict letter of halal law. Executive VP Jack Acree says Saffron Road is also designed to appeal to younger consumers who are most interested in authentic and transparent brands.
Saffron Road expects to see the halal market grow to $2 to $3 billion in the U.S. within the next decade. Meanwhile, traditional healthy frozen food brands, such as Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice, are in a "death spiral," says Durrani. "They are not really appealing to the values that inspire young consumers," he says.
[Image: Manischewitz via Flickr / Robert Couse-Baker]