Metro Detroit halal restaurants are scrambling to figure out how to stay afloat during Ramadan — for many, the busiest time of the year. All is up in the air this year due to social distancing restrictions, following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s March 16 executive order closing restaurants for dine-in service.
This year the month of Ramadan, a holiday coinciding with the ninth month on the Islamic calendar, began April 24 and lasts until May 23. During this time, Muslims around the world observe the holiday by fasting from dawn until dusk, when they break fast, traditionally with dates and a meal shared with friends and family. Local metro Detroit restaurants are usually packed with people picking up takeout or treats prior to the evening iftar meal. Some restaurants also extend hours into the early morning to accommodate the crowds leaving late-night prayers for a pre-dawn meal called sehri or suhoor. But these big gatherings, buffets, and after-hours food festivals simply aren’t possible this year due to the novel coronavirus, and more Muslim families are electing to stay home.
Still, businesses are hoping that the season will bring a much-need boost to bottom lines that have been hurt by the widespread economic downturn. At Bismillah Kabob in Warren, owner Afzal Chowdhury says he recently reopened the restaurant for an anticipated Ramadan pick-me-up. When Michigan restaurants were closed for all but carryout and delivery service, Chowdhury closed his restaurant for a month and had to let go of five employees. Thus far, he hasn’t tried to apply for any small business loan assistance to help Bismillah bounce back.
Now reopened, the restaurant will serve its iftar boxes as it does every year, packed by the restaurant’s employees. These boxes are prepared exclusively during Ramadan at many Bangladeshi restaurants across metro Detroit and typically feature with biryani, chana (fried chickpeas), fyazi (lentil fritters), and deep fried eggplants, potatoes, and peppers, usually for less than $7 per meal. This year, only one person will be allowed into the restaurant at a time to retrieve the iftar box.
Chowdhury, who normally takes the holy month off to lead prayers during the night in New Jersey, instead will be praying at home this year with his family, while helping revamp the business. He says that sales have plummeted by 50 percent since the novel coronavirus crisis began, and he’s adjusted his hours to noon to 8:30 p.m.
In Dearborn Heights, the Ramadan Suhoor Festival, a food festival that attracts thousands to get a “taste of Ramadan,” is canceled this year. Instead smaller shops are figuring out how to switch to carryout options to serve people looking for meals and treats.
Cedarland Restaurant in Dearborn is hoping for a small boost in business. Hussein Sobh and his brother Kassem Sobh own the 160-seat restaurant on Warren Avenue, which is a usually a popular destination for large iftar gatherings. Prior to the month of Ramadan, Cedarland had lost around 80 percent of its business by moving entirely to carryout due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. As a result, the restaurant had to shrink its staff from 14 employees to just three.
The Sobh brothers attempted to apply for the first round of federal small business loans and missed out. “Today I received a call from Wayne County, and they ran out,” Hussein said during an interview in late April. As of Thursday, May 8, he has yet to apply for the second round of loan funding, but says that business has picked up by around 20 percent due to the holy month, bringing revenue to around 40 percent of normal levels.
On Greenfield Road in Dearborn, Kings Bakery (4618 Greenfield Rd.) changed its format entirely to carryout in response to the pandemic. The bakery is known as the “home of the manouwich,” a Middle Eastern cheese pie made into a rolled sandwich that was recently featured in an episode of Ugly Delicious on Netflix. Unfortunately, any boost from being featured on the popular program was devoured by the decline in business from coronavirus.
During a typical Ramadan season, the restaurant is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and reopens midnight to 4 a.m. for suhoor. There are long lines for the manouwich, which comes in 17 varieties; the traditional maneesh comes in 44 options. The 55-seat bakery, which opened in 2013, is undoubtedly busiest during Ramadan. “We always have a line,” chef and co-owner Hassan Houssaiky says.
Since the coronavirus pandemic spread throughout Michigan, Kings Bakery has taken a hit, losing between 60 and 70 percent of its business. The restaurant has had to lay off some employees, but Houssaiky says the restaurant has continued to receive a lot of support from their customers.
This year, the bakery will remain closed off to customers during the day throughout the month of Ramadan. In April, the bakery switched to creating frozen ready-to-bake frozen pies and pie dough for customers to pre-order. At night, the bakery is open with hot meals for carryout only from midnight to 4:30 a.m. daily, except for Mondays. Outside, Kings set up tents with 20 numbered stations, each six feet apart, marked with Xs to indicate where customers should stand. When a customer’s order is called, they come to their assigned station to pick up their bagged meal from a basket.
Bonoful Sweets & Cafe, a Bangladeshi restaurant in Hamtramck, fully closed on March 23, a week after restaurant dining rooms were closed by the state. Owner Oyez Ahmed says the restaurant reopened on April 22 to prepare for Ramadan. “By this time last year, we already had everything prepared for the whole month,” Ahmed told Eater on a recent Friday. “Everything is up in the air.” Ramadan can either break or make the business, co-owner Mustak Ahmed says.
The owners hope the jalebi, a deep fried dough recooked in an aromatic simple syrup, will drive — and maybe save — the business. It is the star of Ramadan iftar foods at Bangladeshi restaurants. “Everyone likes [jalebi],” Mustak Ahmed says. “Some people come and get in line two hours beforehand in the past.” Jalebi chefs are hired especially during Ramadan to make up to 500 pounds of jalebi daily through the month. The jalebi at Bonoful is $5 per pound, and Bonoful usually has two jalebi chefs on hand at all times during Ramadan. However, with business down 50 percent, the restaurant must break up their shifts during the day so they’re each receiving fewer hours, only bringing both chefs in during the slightly busier afternoons.
Bonoful is doing its best to make things safe. It’s open for carryout-only and limiting the number of customers inside, but the owners aren’t expecting the usual long lines. “We anticipate that we can serve and keep the customers happy,” Oyez says. “We have been requested to open for jalebi.”
Restaurant hours during Ramadan:
- Bismillah Kabob (Warren): noon to 8:30 p.m.
- Cedarland Restaurant (Dearborn): 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- Kings Bakery (Dearborn): midnight to 4:30 a.m., last orders accepted at 4 a.m.
- Bonoful Sweets & Cafe (Hamtramck): 11 a.m. until 8 p.m., right before iftar.
Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the local food industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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