Canada: Supermarket speaks language of Halal

Jennifer Bain Food Editor, The Star

The sign at the halal meat counter at Sunny Foodmart says “We can speak your language!”

It lists 10 (Urdu, Punjabi, Turkish, Russian, Bengali, English, Pashto, German, Arabic and Parsi) that staff can speak, though there are certainly more, like French.

Welcome to the global future of Toronto supermarkets.

Recipe: Lamb in Creamy Cardamom Curry

Sunny Foodmart is owned by three Chinese Canadians who have stocked food from a multitude of cultures and reached out to Muslim customers with a certified halal meat counter.

The supermarket opened Nov. 24 in the Flemingdon Park Shopping Centre (747 Don Mills Rd.) in a low-income, price-conscious neighbourhood, where 35-year-old president Bill Chen rebuilt the former Food Basics with the youthful “Sunny” vibe. A lime colour scheme with orange accents and a blazing sun extends from signage and reusable bags to shopping carts and pull-along shopping baskets on wheels.

Sure, there are 60 security cameras inside and outside the 35,000-square-foot store. They’re invisible to most customers, but a huge deterrent to potential shoplifters and troublemakers.

Offsetting open-concept freezers are 10 towering coconut trees (minus “coconuts” for safety) made from metal and plastic and shipped from China at a cost of more than $20,000. Seven trees dominate the produce section. Three flank the checkouts near the food court, with its takeout buffet, Chinese barbecue and bubble tea.

“We are trying to make this store very unique,” Sunny’s marketing consultant Yong Li says over Chinese tea in Chen’s office. “We want to take care of all kinds of people.”

Sunny first launched at Leslie and Finch in 2004 with a straightforward Asian supermarket that caters to Chinese and Korean customers. For its second branch on Don Mills Rd. north of Overlea Blvd., Sunny aimed for both mainstream and multicultural, mindful of the area’s Muslim core.

You’ll find okra and plantain, corn tortillas and naan, Pocky chocolate sticks and wasabi rice crackers, udon and chow mein noodles, kimchi and miso pastes, banana sauce and sautéed shrimp paste alongside Betty Crocker, Cheerios and Jiffy.

Sunny’s management team also turned to Muslim friends for advice and was told that simply stocking fresh, frozen and packaged halal goods wouldn’t be enough. They would also need a certified halal meat counter with dedicated equipment and staff.

“Once you make any mistake, it’s hard to change the customer’s mind,” explains manager Karen Qiu. “So we went to the suppliers and to the farms and we said `Let us know what you cannot do.’”

The Arabic word halal refers to anything lawful or permitted by sharia — Islamic law grounded in the Qur’an. Only certain animals may be eaten — cattle, sheep, goats and domestic birds. Pork is forbidden, as well as fluids like alcohol or blood.

Provincial and federal food agencies don’t do religious certification for the halal market, so self-regulating certification agencies have sprung up.

Sunny pays $150 a month to the Halal Monitoring Authority (HMA), which inspects and certifies slaughterhouses, meat processors and distributors, butchers, restaurants and fast-food outlets.

The authority insists that animals be manually, not mechanically, slaughtered by a Muslim who says the name of Allah aloud, ensures four key veins are cut and avoids cross-contamination with uncertified products.

For supermarkets, the authority demands that meat comes from certified sources and isn’t mixed with non-halal meat or poultry. Packaging must be halal (it can’t be made from animal- or alcohol-based products).

“They come every day — every day,” Chen says of HMA inspectors and their unannounced spot checks.

Not only is Sunny’s 32-foot halal meat counter set well apart from its regular meat counter, which carries pork, it uses a separate receiving door and storage cooler.

The halal meat counter is already twice as busy as the non-halal one and often draws lineups.

“Word-of-mouth is more powerful than advertisements,” says Li. “Muslim people are very tight.”

There is halal lamb, goat, veal, beef and chicken. Some of it is just a few cents more per pound than non-halal, some is $1 a pound or more.

When I request a halal lamb leg cut into boneless cubes, head butcher Muhammad Arain painstakingly trims my order.

“Muslim people, you know, they are very sticky,” confides Arain. “They ask a lot of questions.”

A Muslim from Pakistan, he can answer those questions — in Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and English.