Tech, The World, Now + Beyond

The halal food startup space has two new companies – but there might be a problem

Where there is excitement for halal food, there is also controversy.

Social media was abuzz this week with two new entrants in the meal kit delivery industry: Halal Plates and Halal Chef, both startups catering to a Muslim audience that observes the dietary restrictions of eating halal. Halal is the Arabic term for what is permissible for Muslims according to traditional Islamic law, frequently applied to permissible food and drinks.

According to Shahed Amanullah, Co-Founder of Affinis Labs which helps mentor and fund startups in the global Islamic economy, “We have reached a tipping point where Muslim markets in the West are economically viable in certain areas, such as halal food and fashion, allowing dynamic startups to succeed.”

Amanullah, who also founded Zabihah (the original Yelp of halal eateries and businesses), thinks the market has room to grow. If early entrants into the space provide quality offerings with unique differentiators there is a potential to grow beyond the Muslim consumer to expand to mainstream audiences.

But where there is excitement, there is also controversy.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Toronto-based Halal Plates sent a cautionary note to subscribers. The startup warned of an alleged “fake version” of their website that was masquerading as a U.S.-based partner. They cited no affiliation with the company.

The accused? Halal Chef.

Given the weight of Halal Plates’ accusation, we reached out to both companies for comments to help set the record straight.

Rehan Azhar and his wife Zain Abdullah are the minds behind Halal Chef. The idea for Halal Chef came about when Azhar’s desire to cater food to Muslims collided with a friend from Home Chef who saw a market ripe for the taking. Combined with Abdullah’s experience in the food industry, the group cooked up a business plan that launched Halal Chef Wednesday morning.

When asked if there was any truth to Halal Plates’ claims, Azhar expressed he was disappointed to learn of the accusation. “There are hundreds of sites out there utilizing referral strategies to incentivize their products like we are. We used licensed stock photos that exhibit earthy, wooden tones that every food website in our industry is using. And of course our audiences overlap, we are targeting the same groups in the same market.”

Halal Plates remains unconvinced.

Syed Jafri is the Founder and CEO of the Toronto-based startup which was launched in May and now boasts over 12,000 members. A recent health scare inspired Jafri to join forces with friends and family to start a company that could provide healthy, organic meal options for Muslims – a market, he says, that is woefully underserved.

Two months after Halal Plates’ launch, Jafri claims he was surprised to learn a company bearing a remarkable resemblance to his own had begun courting his subscribers.

Halal Plates claims Halal Chef tried to poach members by soliciting members on personal posts that were promoting Halal Plates.

“They obviously came across our idea, took it and replicated it. We were public for well over a month before they even launched their website. A quick domain search can verify this fact,” says Jafri. “Imitation is a sincere form of flattery, but they are attempting to steal our assets and business model during Ramadan.

We must remember the values we are espousing as a part of our platform. Our goal is to provide a wholesome, credible dining experience for Muslims by adhering to the teachings of Islam. We welcome competition, there is enough room in the market for all of us. We wish the Halal Chef team the best of luck.”

So is this a case of corporate sabotage or industry rivalry? Halal Chef thinks it’s the latter.

“It takes time to develop ideas and businesses. We do not take accusations of copying or stealing another business’ model or designs lightly. Given the opportunity, we would have preferred to address the matter privately with Halal Plates to alleviate any concerns. In the end, we are responsible for creating a quality product, customers can then decide with their taste buds and wallets.”

Both startups do agree on one thing: there is a growing demand in the market for products addressing Muslims needs, and Muslim entrepreneurs are hungry and eager to think, tinker and build.

“There is a race for the Muslim consumer. They are extremely discerning and will not compromise quality even if their identity is catered to,” says Amanullah. “If Muslim-owned startups don’t act fast, mainstream companies will compete with much larger war chests and smother the emerging ecosystem.”

May the best biryani win.