Zagat logo

Stories

A Muslim’s Quest For Halal Meat In The Midwest

From grocer to restaurant owner to butcher, making sure meat presented as halal actually follows Islamic principles for preparation.

Originally from Pakistan, Mohammad Ashraf Patel left the family garment business and immigrated to the United States, eventually establishing multiple branches of Anmol restaurants in the Chicago area. His drive to provide halal meat led to opening up his own production facilities—including his own slaughterhouse—to insure proper halal preparation.

In 1990, I migrated to Chicago from Pakistan. Since the age of seven, I dreamed to become an actor and stayed with this dream throughout all of high school. My childhood was fueled with inspiration from a TV drama called Jangloos, and I had aspired to be just like the hero in this show.

When I had the courage to talk with my father about this in 1984, an enormous argument broke out. I distinctly remember my father stating, “I cannot allow you acting, acting is not our job, we are business people!” It was clear my father wanted me to be a businessman, but this was not my intention then. I told him if I did not receive his blessing I would migrate to the United States anyway.

I never received his blessing, but at the age of 25 I set out for the United States. I reached the American Embassy and applied for four green cards, and I received the visa through a lottery. Finally the day came—January 21, 1990. I was officially in America, in Chicago, and was ready to attain my dream.

When I first arrived in America, I was relieved to know my parents could not control me here, and nobody was going to stop me. My mentality was positive and independent—in order to achieve my dream, I had to have a hard work ethic. I thought to myself, “I need to settle down as soon as possible and obtain a stable job and home.” Unfortunately, I struggled for two months trying to find some type of job to survive. Thankfully a friend came to me with a job opportunity.

I remember him saying this type of job would not be fit for me, and I would not take it. He looked puzzled, stating, “You were a rich man in Pakistan, you are not going to do this job.”

He told me the job is a “busboy.” I didn’t know what a busboy was at the time, so I told that I can’t drive a bus, and he laughed at me. He told me that a busboy doesn’t drive a bus—a busboy cleans tables at a restaurant. I needed this job, so I took it and became a busboy. There I was on my way to the Reza restaurant in Chicago, in my three-dollar thrift store clothing, ready for my very first shift in America.

Reza was known for serving halal Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as alcohol from their bar. As a Muslim, I couldn’t work with the liquor being sold, and immediately quit when I was threatened to be fired if I couldn’t abide by the rules about the alcohol. I managed to move to another job at the Garden Restaurant in Chicago on Shalimar Avenue. I worked there for one year. In fact, around 80 percent of my knowledge of restaurants came from this job.

In 1991, I was ready to start my own business on credit. I had everything I needed—lemon, charcoal, tomatoes, almost 900 items! Though there was a lot of competition, if they ever needed anything I would give it to them. If they needed charcoal on Sunday, then I would be there on Sunday.

Ashraf Patel in the early 1990s in Chicago. Photo: Courtesy Mohammad Ashraf Patel.

I was happy in America with my new business, and I didn’t think of returning to Pakistan anytime soon. Unfortunately I received heartbreaking news that my brother passed away. While I was on my way to pray for my brother, I met a sheikh. This sheikh changed my life, and in fact he still is my sheikh. I was extremely angry and impatient before I met him, and he changed me. He taught me my religion extremely well and influenced me in many ways. I made a promise to him—I would never lie and cheat, and would teach my kids to never lie and cheat.

So in 1993, I sacrificed my business to return to Pakistan for good. To my surprise, my father had told me to return to America because Karachi had become extremely dangerous—there were many episodes of robbing and shooting. Instead of migrating back to America, I stayed and I asked my friend for a gun in order to protect me and my family. My father warned me if I were to perform an irreversible action with this gun, I would get into deep trouble. Fortunately, I was able to pull myself together with help from my sheikh.

In 1994, I decided to come back to America. I started a new business in Chicago from 1995 to 1996. I needed to ensure my restaurant would be halal, but the halal meat here was extremely expensive. I was determined to understand the situation of halal food in Chicago, and I soon realized that the state of affairs was much more substandard than I was expecting.

In Islam, zabiha halal refers to meat which has been ritually slaughtered in the name of Allah according to Islamic principles. There are a number of crucial prerequisites that have to be fulfilled in order for the meat to be considered zabiha halal, one of them being that the meat has to be slaughtered by hand, and it was here that the deception was being sustained. Hand-cut meat is regarded as a luxury commodity and is sold at a premium. A worrying percentage of halal stores and restaurants were purchasing non-halal meat for a cheaper price, and proceeded to sell it to customers at the premium price of halal meat.

The grim reality was that not only were people blatantly lying about whether their meat was halal, but they were going to great lengths to hide the truth. I told myself this is unjust to my community—ethically, morally, as well as religiously. I felt it was my social responsibility to raise awareness of this corruption going undetected.

I gathered strong evidence and caught multiple retailers openly lying about the source of their meat. I would check dumpsters for empty meat boxes, and even walk into the meat coolers with a video camera. I firmly believed that the truth had to be known—honest people were being cheated, not only for their money, but for their faith as well.

I decided to start my own business selling premium halal meat in 1997, called Awami Bazaar. I was shunned for having my meat being on the pricier side, while my competition had cheaper meat. I traveled throughout the United States, slaughtering the meat myself. I sold the meat to provide my customers with complete assurance that their meat had been hand-slaughtered. I would play videos in my store demonstrating my personal involvement in ensuring the halal status of the meat I was selling. I even put a sign outside my store stating that if anyone could prove my meat wasn’t halal, they would win a $50,000 cash award.

I was excited to start my business, but it was extremely hard. For almost five years, I made no money. People continued to buy from the businesses with non-halal meat. I lost my business, and my family was not even with me at the time—I had sent them back to Pakistan in 1992 since I could not provide for them. I also got diagnosed with diabetes. Everything was going wrong, and I prayed to God, I prayed everything would turn out okay. I was feeling hopeless but I didn’t give up. I tried to start a business in Pakistan importing food to America, but I got kicked out after three years.

From 1998, I started importing groceries from Pakistan to supply in Chicago. This included Pakistani foods. In 2002, I sold Awami Bazaar. Then in 2004, I started a grocery store in Milwaukee called Sasta Bazaar. I only sold groceries because there were too many complications with selling halal meat at this time. Luckily I met a man who sold halal meat, and we agreed I would buy from him in return for a 10 percent discount. Then I realized I was being cheated again, which led me to spend $25,000 in order to open up a meat section in my store.

Eight years later, in 2005, I opened my first restaurant, Anmol, which means “priceless” in Urdu. Prior to this, I had virtually no experience of managing a restaurant, but I refused to let that intimidate me. For the first few years, it was a steep learning curve. In order to learn about the industry, I was guided by my chef, who always threatened to leave the job because of personality differences. One day, the chef threw the keys at me and I sent him home.

I struggled to manage the restaurant’s logistics and finances. My vision was falling apart, and Anmol ended up for sale at half of the initial investment. At this crucial moment, my wife Arfa stepped in. She immersed herself in the restaurant’s kitchen and started to cook the curries, barbecue, and grilled selections on the menu. To my great surprise and relief, the diners loved the food. They gushed over the flavors and presentation, and advised me to never let go of such an outstanding chef. And so, in 2010, Anmol Barbecue was born in Chicago, and more branches popped up later both in Naperville and Milwaukee.

In 2014, I opened my own slaughterhouse in Kinsman, Illinois. Before, I used to go to South Dakota 900 miles away, and I used to kill 300 cows a week myself to make sure the meat was halal. Previously, no one supported me. They used to talk behind my back and say I would close down in six months, and go out of business in three months. It is through Allah’s grace I have been successful.

Patel gets animals ready for Eid ul-Adha at his slaughterhouse in Kinsman, Illinois. Photo: Courtesy Mohammad Ashraf Patel.

My latest venture arose as a result of the pandemic. Restaurants were closed, and my son Arif had an idea to have our food cooked and frozen. We made 25 boxes for an iftar party for Ramadan, with the same menu, in Indiana. A friend of mine wanted to have our food at a party, but with the lockdown restrictions, we decided to be innovative since people could not gather. That spurred the venture. We decided that the community still needed halal food, and if people couldn’t come to us, then we would go to the people. In April 2020, I launched Anmol Frozen Foods, which provides a variety of gourmet South Asian dishes that ship directly to your doorstep.

I consider myself among the few fortunate people able to recognize their true calling. I own several grocery stores, restaurants, and distribution companies alongside my own slaughterhouse. I am able to oversee the production of halal meat, and I continue to demonstrate my commitment to only serving zabiha halal.