Halal is what halal is, but striving towards complementing that, and not separating it from the tayyeb aspect, that’s the direction we want to push people in…
Ramadan Mubarak! Krystina interviews Imam Khalid Latif, co-founder of Manhattan’s Honest Chops, a halal butcher shop providing hand-slaughtered, ethically raised pastured beef and chicken to the NYC community. Their vegetarian and non-GMO fed meat is sourced from farms in Lancaster, PA as well as Maryland and upstate New York, butchered and prepped on site using organic ingredients
BH: Why did you decide on a butcher shop?
KL: I’m a chaplain at New York University and the director of NYU’s Islamic Center and the community here has grown exponentially over the last few years. We wanted to build out initiatives that would create revenue streams back into the Islamic Center that we could utilize, in the long term, to build social services that the community was in need of.
With a group of our community members and alumni we found that in Manhattan itself there weren’t any halal meat stores at all. We saw an opportunity to build something that the community would benefit from and at the same time it’s an opportunity for revenue generation towards social services. In the long term we want to build out a robust counseling service, a domestic violence shelter, and a free health clinic.
We researched what was out there and surveyed different segments of the community, and found that many people had stopped eating halal altogether, some had started eating kosher only, some became vegetarian or vegan, and some just started to eat whatever because they all had essentially the same frustration that the quality of the meat they were being provided wasn’t really what they were hoping for.
I then reached out to people in the restaurant business who had at some point owned their own halal meat stores, we had conversations with butchers both Muslim and non-Muslim, and we looked at more high-end established meat stores, organic stores, all-natural stores. Within the halal meat store demographic we found that there were a lot of unethical things taking place at times and not much quality control. We interviewed a butcher who told us he used to work at a place that would marinate pork and sell it as veal. We heard different things that were very disheartening.
The vision changed slightly as we felt that we could leverage the growing credibility of our Islamic Center and start to reclaim what halal actually means, and to educate within the community about what it was they were consuming and why they deserved something better than that. So we shifted our perspective from being a halal meat store to providing something that was of a better quality and we landed on Honest Chops. We have a storefront in the East Village, and in the last few weeks we started a home delivery process in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn and we’re hoping to expand. In the next nine months we’ll reassess our strategy and think about whether to open more storefronts or open our own slaughter facility.
BH: The slaughter facility presents an interesting challenge, because the industrialization of slaughter makes it difficult to run small-scale slaughterhouses. Are you thinking small-scale or integrating into an existing facility?
KL: Yes, these are some of the challenges that we ran into. For existing slaughterhouses that aren’t Muslim-run or completely halal as an operation, it was just hard to find time-slots with people being willing to slaughter for us with the regularity we were hoping they would. Then on the labor end of it, ensuring that everything met the quality and standards that we were hoping for. We have found a few halal slaughterhouses, and there are different challenges there in terms of the quality of the cutting. We’re a whole animal butcher. We get the entire steer and our butchers break it down, and what ends up happening in some of the slaughter facilities is that the Muslim slaughterers who are involved don’t know all the cuts, so they might cut through the filet mignon, cut through the ribs.
BH: How did you determine your standards, in terms of the standards in the industry but also the ethical and spiritual standards for the meat and for the processing of the meat?
KL: We had conversations with people who were scholarly, and people who were well-versed in the industry itself. I spoke with Sheikh Dawood Yasin a lot, he’s really passionate about this. We spoke with Zaid Kurdieh from Norwich Meadows Farms, who set us straight on a lot of things in terms of standards; you can tell that he has a passion beyond the lucrative aspects of something like this. Seeing his commitment, compassion and sincerity, we shaped the direction that this could go in.
We have our “Honest to God Guarantee,” the guiding principles by which we run the store, which we hope set a standard for our community and beyond our community. It’s just so much of what our spirituality is tied to. You hear it over and over in classes and lectures, and if you read books like Your Spiritual Diet, step one is to reassess what you’re really consuming. In the most literal sense, that’s what are you eating and what are you drinking? For me personally, being able to engage individuals who are at every level of the process makes it something is just that much more meaningful than the commercial interactions that I wasn’t personally conscious of. Knowing the farm where the beef came from that I’m eating, the person who slaughtered it, the person who raised it; everything that speaks to a kind of blessing that metaphysically can be derived from hands that have a certain concern… You start to feel it in a different way.
BH: It seems that there are different definitions of halal out there, some more legalistic, others with more of an emphasis on ethics, and other perspectives that equate halal with organic, etc. How do you answer the question of what “halal” is?
KL: To be honest, the questions that we get in the store aren’t oriented around what halal means, perhaps by virtue of the fact that we’re in Manhattan and there’s a halal street vendor on every corner, the word itself is not foreign to people. On the wall when you walk in are the guiding principles that we have, starting out with the slaughtering process (everything’s hand slaughtered). The chickens that we get still have their heads attached so people can see that they are being hand slaughtered and not machine slaughtered. We talk about the importance of vegetarian diets, non-GMOs and raising animals in humane conditions. We talk about giving our employees fair wages and the importance of fair labor.
Personally, instead of in a professional way representing the organization, I wouldn’t divorce the word halal from tayyeb. Seeing the things that I’ve seen in the last year… I was twelve when I started eating halal meat only, and I don’t know how conscious I was of the difference between what I was eating, but I can honestly say that shifting into eating better quality meat, not only other meat products but other food tastes very different to me. I attribute that to my body getting used to what I’m eating now; I wouldn’t be able to comfortably say that one is halal and the other is not halal or the other is more halal, because the assumption would be that both are slaughtered per the guidelines that the shari’a dictates, but the rearing and the breeding of the meat, and the mass production versus a more intimate relationship with the animal itself really has an impact that a lot of us aren’t conscious of. Halal is what halal is, but striving towards complementing that, and not separating it from the tayyeb aspect, that’s the direction we want to push people in.