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Bringing a Muslim Culinary Tradition Mainstream

Think "halal" is a just a dietary restriction? Adnan Durrani, the founder of American Halal, wants to change the definition.
Jack Acree, executive vice president with American Halal Co., Inc., left, and Adnan Durrani, Chief Halal Officer with American Halal Co., Inc, stand near their products in a freezer case at a Whole Foods store in Darien, Conn.
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Most Americans know the term halal-if they are familiar with it at all-as the Muslim system of dietary regulations. Adnan Durrani wants consumers to understand halal in different terms: "Wholesome and pure. Sustainable, fair trade, and just practices in terms of the environment and animal welfare."

Durrani is the founder and CEO of American Halal, whose Saffron Road brand sells the first halal-certified frozen entrées available in mainstream supermarkets nationwide, including all stores in 11 regions of the Whole Foods chain. Though halal may be mysterious to most Americans, it has many parallels to kashrut, or Jewish dietary law, notably in its ban on pork products and standards for butchering meat. And for Durrani, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, that's the point.

There are only 5.3 million Jews in the U.S., but kosher food is a $12.5 billion market. It's also a crowded one, with 16,000 companies selling certified-kosher products. As for Muslims, a recent Pew Report put their U.S. population at 2.6 million in 2010 but projects that number jumping to 6.2 million by 2030.

If Muslims' numbers are relatively small, their market power is considerable. About 52 percent of U.S. Muslim households have income of more than $50,000 a year-slightly more than in the public at large. And they are highly educated: Forty-two percent of Muslim American women, for example, hold a college or postgraduate degree, compared with 29 percent of American women overall-a rate second only to that of American Jewish women. (Food marketers generally target female consumers.) The Muslim population is also young; 73 percent are 18 to 44, compared with 44 percent in the general population. "American Muslims," Durrani says, "are a food marketer's dream come true."

If Saffron Road succeeds, it won't be the first time Durrani will have realized such a dream. In 1991, Durrani founded Vermont Pure, which became a leading supplier of bottled water. A decade later, bottled water was a $6.9 billion business, and beverage giants like Coke were scrambling to create water brands of their own. In 1994, even as experts told him that American kids would never eat yogurt, Durrani's private equity firm was one of the first institutional investors in Stonyfield Farm. "He gets credit for being ahead of his time," says Stonyfield Farm co-founder and chairman Gary Hirshberg, who remains friendly with Durrani. "What he's trying to do now is create not just a company but really a new category."

Of course, for a brand with Saffron Road's ambitions, making a hit with Muslim shoppers isn't enough. In the kosher food market, for example, about 75 percent of sales comes from non-Jews-many of them Muslims-who buy kosher for reasons including health and safety, taste, or flavor, and the belief that the products are made under stricter guidelines than are other products. (Readers of a certain age may remember Hebrew National's successful 1970s "We Answer to a Higher Authority" TV ad campaign.) The Saffron Road name-an allusion to the Silk Road, the ancient trading route that connected the Middle East, India, and China-was chosen to be broadly appealing.

And each box is graffitied with half a dozen or so seals of approval: certified humane, antibiotic free, gluten free. Although halal certification (from the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America) may be the draw for a Muslim shopper, a non-Muslim looking for frozen Thai or Indian food might choose Saffron Road because it's the only certified-humane and antibiotic-free option in the grocery freezer.

The approach seems to be working. In 2011, Saffron Road won the best-product award from the World Halal Forum and was named one of the top 10 new products to watch at the 2011 Fancy Food Show, a key event for the specialty-food industry. American Halal had retail sales of more than $4 million in 2011, driven largely by Whole Foods. But with new products on the way and distribution in more supermarket chains-including Publix, Wegmans, and Kroger-Durrani forecasts sales hitting $50 million within five years.

A Food Marketer's Dream

That's what Adnan Durrani calls the U.S. Muslim market. Here's why:

It's Growing

Population in 2010: 2.6 million

Population in 2030: 6.2 million (Projected)

It's Educated

Share of U.S. Muslim women with a college or postgraduate degree: 42%

Share of U.S. women with a college or postgraduate degree: 29%

It's Young

Portion of U.S. Muslims from 18 to 44: 73%

Portion of U.S. population from 18 to 44: 44%

IMAGE: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
Last updated: May 3, 2012

ADAM BLUESTEIN

Adam Bluestein is a frequent contributor to Inc., writing about health care, innovation, and new technology. He lives with his wife and two children in Burlington, Vermont.




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