Filling the void

When Pashtoonyar Zekria moved to Red Deer 18 years ago, there were four Muslim families in the city

Owners of the Red Deer Halal Meat-Plus store in north Red Deer await final approval from the City before they can open their business. From the left are Barb and Charles Richards

When Pashtoonyar Zekria moved to Red Deer 18 years ago, there were four Muslim families in the city.

That number has grown to about 300 families — creating a need and a business opportunity.

Islamic law directs that followers only eat food that meets a designated standard, known as halal. That can be a problem for Muslims living in communities where halal foods are not readily available.

Pashtoonyar, his wife, Tammy, and Tammy’s parents, Barb and Charles Richards, want to fill this void in Red Deer. They’re preparing to open Red Deer Halal Meat-Plus.

Chicken, beef, goat and lamb will all be available at the north-side store, as will dried goods ranging from spices and fresh pita bread to marshmallows and other treats.

Central Alberta’s Muslim community has been abuzz since the four partners decided to open their store, said Barb. That’s because the alternatives have not been good.

Buying food marked halal in local stores can be risky, said Tammy, because there are different standards.

“You really have to do your homework and know what meets the criteria.”

Many Muslims who live here have been driving to Calgary or Edmonton on a regular basis to obtain meat and other goods. But that usually means buying in bulk and freezing, instead of consuming fresh products.

It’s also costly and time-consuming.

“It’s not a trip you want to make every week,” said Tammy, who has been a practising Muslim for 12 years.

She and her husband and parents considered opening a halal shop a number of years ago, but decided the city wasn’t then ready.

“In the last six months, that’s when we really started talking seriously that it’s time,” said Tammy.

They found coolers and other equipment needed for the business, and suitable premises at No. 21, 7727 50th Ave. — the former site of King Of Floors. Renovations and other preparations followed.

“We went from dipping our toes in the water to being up to our noses now,” said Tammy with a laugh.

A key step in the process was obtaining approval from the spiritual leader of the Central Alberta Islamic Society. Not only did this imam carefully inspect their 2,300-square-foot premises, he satisfied himself that the sources of their products is acceptable.

“He looked at everything,” said Tammy, adding that this included close scrutiny of the Didsbury abattoir that will provide Red Deer Halal Meat-Plus with much of its meat.

“He’s the only halal slaughterhouse in Alberta and our imam actually had a meeting with him to ensure that the meat that we’re getting is halal.”

Pashtoonyar explained that halal meat must be processed following strict requirements. This includes hand-slaughtering the animals by a specially trained person to ensure they are killed humanely, and the recital of a prayer for each.

The Didsbury abattoir will supply goat meat, beef and lamb, with Charles sourcing suitable livestock from area farms, hauling it to the facility, and then transporting the processed meat to Red Deer.

Chicken will come from British Columbia, and dried goods from Calgary and Toronto.

“In dried goods, you have to watch for things like lard and gelatin that are not halal,” pointed out Tammy. “We will ensure that everything is halal.”

Products carried in the store will likely change in response to customer feedback, said Barb.

Tammy expects non-Muslims to be among those shopping there, explaining that products like fresh goat meat, which is favoured by a number of ethnic groups, is not currently available elsewhere in the city.

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