More American companies are expanding into Muslim countries, and U.S. Halal consumers are looking for more meal options.
With a population of eight to 10 million Muslims in the United States, plus more than one billion overseas, the Islamic market represents a vast, potentially lucrative market for any company involved in the food industry. The challenge, however, is in providing food that both tastes good and is appropriate for the target population.
That necessary expertise is part of the reason that Midamar Corp. has become such a valuable company for businesses entering the Muslim market. Not only is Midamar one of the premier U.S. Halal food brands, but it also is a leader in global supply chain management.
“We work with international restaurants and hotels, so when they go over to the Middle East or Asia, we will help them develop their Halal program,” says Jalel Aossey, director of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based company. “If they have on their menu an 8-ounce ribeye, we will help them source their Halal ribeye steaks, or we will develop a line of hot dog products or deli items. We help them understand what it takes to convert their menus over to a culturally sensitive menu for the region of the world.”
Midamar was formed in 1974 as an international trading company. William Aossey had traveled extensively in the Middle East and North Africa, working for the Peace Corps and teaching English in Saudi Arabia. Through his work there, he accumulated many business contacts looking to import products from the United States. With his Iowa background, he was able to help set up a Halal program at a facility in West Liberty and began shipping turkey and beef products overseas.
Today, Midamar has one processing facility located in Cedar Rapids, and the company also works with co-packers across the country.
“Many of our best co-packers are family-owned companies that we’ve worked with for 25 years or more,” comments Jalel Aossey, who oversees the company along with his brother, Yahya.
Midamar sees itself as providing a turnkey operation for its customers. Along with the protein products that it makes, it can source anything that a restaurant would need, from seafood to pizza dough to waffle cone mix. Along with its headquarters in Iowa, Midamar also has an office in Dubai to assist customers.
“When we’re helping a contact overseas, they really have to have someone develop a product mix efficiently, because it’s not as easy as throwing something on a truck and making a delivery next week,” Aossey points out.
The U.S. Halal market
Midamar produces a variety of beef, poultry and lamb items, from raw cuts to sausages and deli meats. Among its perennially popular items are a breakfast beef, similar to bacon, and beef hot links. Those types of products span a number of Muslim ethnic segments, and they give consumers a chance to enjoy mainstay American products that are also Halal.
Aossey remembers his childhood disappointment when hot dogs were served in school.
“The one Jewish kid and I would get a plain piece of white bread with peanut butter slapped on top of it, and that was our lunch,” he recalls. “I’d go home and say, ‘Dad, why can’t we have a hot dog?’” That helped spur the development of Midamar’s hot links.
“Kids are going to be kids, and they want to eat what other kids are going to be eating,” he adds. “And what a good way to have a cultural assimilation. Kids can feed their friends these hot dogs, and everyone can enjoy it. It’s the whole theory of breaking bread together.”
As one of the most recognizable Halal brands in the U.S., Midamar has developed an understanding of its consumers. Aossey notes that the Muslim population is quite diverse and comes from several countries and backgrounds.
“What we see in the industry is when people talk about the Halal customer, they’re still under the belief that they’re speaking just about Arabs,” Aossey says. “Arabs in the United States are less than five or six million people, and about 50 percent are actually of the Christian faith.”
The largest populations in the Muslim demographic include African Americans, South Asians (from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and Eastern bloc Europeans. There are also people from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East. While they share a common faith, their ethnic backgrounds and preferred foods are very diverse.
“You’re not tailoring a product just to one ethnic race, you’re selling to a number of them,” Aossey says. “Opportunities are very broad, but that also makes for a big marketing challenge.” The same product that Midamar would send to Philadelphia would not do as well in Dallas, for example.
The Halal market is following many of the same trends that are prevalent among the U.S. population in general, and Midamar is developing new products to meet the demands. Aossey says that the company has seen an increased demand in all-natural or organic items, as consumers have become more health-conscious and educated about what is in their food.
One of the company’s latest releases is an air-chilled, organic chicken line, and Aossey said that response to the product has been excellent. It is the first product of its kind to reach the Halal marketplace. The company has also launched a low-sodium, gluten-free line of hospital meals that has gained Midamar access to the institutional market.
“We developed it because they wanted Halal meals, but also something that tasted good and that they could serve to anybody,” said Aossey. “It took us about a year to develop, but now it’s a growing segment.”
Many of the changes in the Halal market have come from the younger generations, he says. An older consumer may still buy the traditional raw beef cuts, bring them home and prepare traditional meals, but the younger ones have been asking for natural and organic products, as well as an expanded product range.
“The next generation, they want Halal chicken marsala, they want Halal beef jerky, they want beef pepperoni pizza – they want more products than what historically has been offered,” Aossey says.
For example, many in the Pakistani/South Asian community grew up eating curried food, but now the top sellers for that community include ribeyes, tenderloins and strip loins. Historically, they haven’t eaten that type of cuisine.
While the Halal customer base is sizable – and counts many non-Muslim consumers as well – selling them at retail level can be a challenge. Midamar has established a mail-order service to reach consumers who aren’t able to find products at nearby mainstream stores. The September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States also hurt the Halal market in general, and Aossey says that there have been years where mainstream stores didn’t want to carry Halal products for fear of how customers would respond.
Fortunately, mainstream America is warming up to the Halal market as the American knowledge base grows. “But what we’ve seen over the course of the last 10 years is there has been a tremendous amount of learning on both sides,” he says. “We received a number of calls from media [after Sept. 11], wanting to find out about Muslims in America, where they lived, and this thing called Halal food. Then the light bulb went off in some companies — if they’re here in the U.S., and there’s a billion of them overseas, there’s a real marketing opportunity and branding opportunity to reach out to these consumers.”