USA: First halal festival draws crowd of 10,000

20130822__local03_VIEWERThe groups of festival-goers standing in lines for “Halal Fest” tokens and mouth-watering delicacies like brisket soft tacos and Southern fried chicken extended beyond the eye of a passing festival-goer.

The patrons standing in the lines so full that newcomers had a hard time finding the end of them at California’s first Halal Food and Eid Festival on Saturday varied in appearance; children, grandparents, families, women and girls in brightly colored hijabs and teenage boys in shorts and T-shirts.

Yet they all stood in line for the same reason: the opportunity to sample halal food from around the region.

“Halal” is Arabic for “permissible,” and refers to religious dietary guidelines similar to kosher food for Jews. Pork and alcohol are prohibited.

A victim of its own success, the festival held from noon to 7 p.m. in the main parking lot of NewPark Mall in Newark drew in 10,000 attendees, nearly five times the number expected and surprising festival organizers, vendors and attendees.

Many festival-goers were upset with the long lines and crowds that made it hard to find anyone and food vendors running out of highly-anticipated and popular items. Many left the festival and visited the food vendor’s store locations in the area and other halal restaurants.

With an estimated 300,000 Muslims living in the San Francisco Bay Area, the festival was meant to showcase what Muslim and halal vendors had to offer the community.

“I can’t see you man,” a man wearing cargo shorts and a T-shirt said as he walked past the stage with his phone pressed against his ear, skirting around lines. “Just forget this, lets meet up at King’s Barbeque, the lines will be shorter there” he said as he hung up and then headed for the parked cars.

At King’s BBQ and Grill, at 39197 Farwell Drive, large groups of people still discussing the festival, stood in line waiting to order, only to be told that the restaurant was out of brisket they had sent all of it to be sold at the festival. Some of the people standing in line left making plans to try other halal restaurants in the area, while others stayed to try the chicken.

The restaurant became so full the fire marshal arrived and told the owner, Shahbaaz Khan, that he would have to close the restaurant which opened July 27 early.

“It was at maximum capacity, we had 96 people seated and there was a line out the door,” Khan said. “We didn’t expect a crowd like this at the restaurant or at our booth at the food festival, so we ran out of food.”

The King BBQ stall at the festival was one of the most popular, and despite Khan sending 300 pounds of meat initially and an additional 100 when reserves ran low, they completely ran out of smoked barbecue, brisket, burgers and the brisket tacos that festival-goers were eagerly anticipating.

Organizers who received ample criticism apologized to festival-goers via the event Facebook page, who were not able to try any of the items the 18 halal food, drink and dessert vendors were selling, citing that a first of its kind event always has unforeseen problems and circumstances.

Organizers also provided a solution to those upset that they could not get a refund on the tokens they were not able to use with vendors, by allowing them to use the tokens at Mela Tandoori Kitchen in San Francisco through the end of September.

Irfan Rydhan, an event co-organizer and self-proclaimed foodie, said he and his fellow organizers did not expect to get more than 3,000 people because after the Eid Festival the end of the holy fasting month Ramadan there are so many other events that attendance at such events is low.

However, he said despite rumors circulating to the contrary, hot food was available at some of the food trucks and vendors until the festival ended.

“People forget to realize that this is a free admission event; we didn’t get any money from the 10,000 people who came,” Rydhan said with regard to criticism of the food token system and accusations against the organizers for hosting the event for profit.

The organizers consider the festival a success.

“We had a very diverse crowd. In the past 10 years there has not been any turnout like this at any event in the Bay Area, that is why we were not expecting so many people now we see there is a lot of demand for this food,” co-organizer Aysha Mohsin said. “Huge crowds came out from various ethnicities, everyone you can imagine, different community leaders, masjid leaders, people who were practicing and secular É it really brought the community together.”

In addition to the food stalls, 30 vendors sold ethnic clothing, jewelry, books, toys and artwork from around the world in the bazaar. While many stood in line, others stopped by the main stage to watch an Indonesian women’s choir the Salawat Nasheed group an American Moroccan fusion jazz group and a demonstration on how to cook chicken satay, by Jimmy Sujanto of Berkeley’s Padi.

The festival exceeded the expectations of many attendees including Modesto resident Zoya Sareshwala.

“It was a really cool to be able to turn any way and find so many options of halal food from fried chicken to chicken tikka tacos,” Sareshwala said. “My general feeling was that there were too many people there, but that made me incredibly happy that so many people came out to this festival and it felt like a celebration to me, celebrating unity in the Bay Area.”

The festival was a good first-time effort, according to San Jose resident Tanya Agha.

“I hope it only gets better in the future,” she said.

Agha added she would like to see the token system to purchase food eliminated. “It wasn’t efficient with regards to wait time for everyone in line.”

The festival would also be a great place to advocate healthy eating habits, said Jordan Richter, a local professional skateboarder.

Richter, manning his own booth at the festival, talked to people about skateboarding classes he offers at Fremont Skate Park. He also showed youth skateboarders some basics on the concrete stretch at the end of the festival footprint.

The festival accomplished its two main goals, which were to promote halal food options to Muslims, people of faith and the greater community and to promote Muslim-owned businesses and nonprofits that serve the community in the area, Rydhan said.

“The festival helped a lot of the Muslim businesses in the area, there were so many people we were not able to accommodate, so people went to nearby businesses, which is good because it helps the Muslim businesses and local economy,” Rydhan said. “So many people came from far away, and they didn’t get the food they wanted or didn’t want to stand in line so they went to a local restaurant because a lot of people who came from far don’t have those kinds of restaurants in their area.”