French fast food caters to a new audience: Muslims

Beholding the two steaming hamburgers before her, Marika Karboia's eyes gleam with joy beneath her head scarf. "You can't imagine how this feels!" she exclaims. "For the very first time in my life, I'm eating a hamburger!"

Ms. Karboia is Muslim and is visiting the brand-new fast-food restaurant Beurger King Muslim (BKM) in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb east of Paris. "It tastes just great," she says, accompanied by her husband and son. "We used to go to McDonalds every now and then, but as Muslims we could only have the fishburgers."

Muslims have ritual rules for food. Fish is allowed; pork isn't. Other types of meat have to be prepared in specific ways, according to Islamic laws. Only then is it deemed halal - fit to eat.

A month ago, Beurger King Muslim, an independently owned restaurant that is not related to America's Burger King chain, set a precedent by selling its halal fast-food products in Clichy-sous-Bois. Never before has anyone in this gourmet country tried to position fast food so explicitly for France's estimated five million Muslims.

The interior of BKM is not unlike the better known American Burger King chain, except for the fact that most women - customers and employees - wear head scarves.

The word Beurger is a play on words, alluding to the young French ethnic minorities from northern Africa - like the majority of the clients and owners of BKM - who are often referred to as "beurs."

"Here in Clichy many people often asked for halal food," says Rachid Bouzidi, manager of the restaurant. "That's why we started our own business. So far, up to 80 percent of our customers are Muslim."

Beurger King Muslim appears to have hit a demographic gold mine - one few entrepreneurs have exploited. Ibrahim Dar is one of them. After working at Kentucky Fried Chicken for many years in Britain, he started his own chain of restaurants in London in 1994 with halal chicken fast food. Now he owns 32 Chicken Spots throughout Britain.

His restaurants are all set up in migrant areas, with Muslim inhabitants.

"Yes, we're quite successful," he admits with a shy voice. "But it's thanks to the demand. Muslims are asking for these sort of products. They like to go to a fast-food restaurant, but there was nowhere to go."

The rise of these new restaurants, however, does not please everyone. Many French say halal restaurants hinder integration.

"I think that such an idea is really passé," says Patrick Simon, who sees the restaurants as an inevitable development. He's a migration specialist at the French national Institute of Demographic Studies. "Integration in a multicultural society, which we are, means new ways of collective life will arise. And that includes people clinging to their religious identity, and eating halal, while at the same time participating and functioning well in French society."

Ahmed Bouadla couldn't agree more. He's having a Bacon Halal at BKM with his wife and two children. "I was born in France, I work here and pay my taxes. What more can I do to integrate into this society? But I can still have my own faith, can't I? I don't see what it has to do with integration."

Mr. Bouzidi, the manager, nods in agreement. "So far, we have only got positive feedback." And that's not just because they serve this forgotten group of millions of clients. Company policy is to recruit staff from the neighborhood. Most of them were jobless before they started working here.

"We cooperate closely with the job center, to give these young people a new start," Bouzidi says.

Ibrahim Dar, owner of Chicken Spot, can cite only one disadvantage of the new business: Ramadan - the month-long fast that Muslims hold each year.

"Ramadan is really tough for us," he says. "These four weeks of fasting during daytime make our sales plunge. It's a setback of about 40 to 50 percent in profits."

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