UF campus opens two halal restaurants, addressing calls for food diversity in Gainesville, Ocala

People wait in line to buy food from The Halal Shack in the Reitz Union food court. “I really liked the food,” Saim Shaikh, a University of Florida fifth-year food science and animal science student, said. (Zarin Ismail/WUFT News)

Fatima Bennett is an Ocala resident who eats a halal-only diet. She said in Ocala it takes her 20 minutes to get to the closest market with halal meat, and that prices are higher in Ocala than in Gainesville.

But to get lower-priced halal meat in Gainesville, she said she would have to drive an hour.

“It’s just not worth it,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s uncle is a farmer, and he sells about 200 whole raw halal chickens every other month. She said those sell out in just a week. Muslims who choose to eat halal meat — or meat prepared and permitted to eat according to Islamic law — have fewer dining options.

Bennett said Ocala lacks formal halal dining, as she knows of only one sit-down halal restaurant in the area. She also said the variety of raw halal meat for sale could be better.

“Specific cuts — if we want to be picky — are pretty expensive,” she said. “We’re limited to just getting whole chickens.”

Despite the limited variety and higher prices, Bennett said she believes access to halal food has improved over the past 12 years she’s lived in Ocala. Before more halal food options became available near her, she said she used to drive over an hour to Orlando to buy halal meat.

Gainesville resident Umbreen Khuddus also eats a halal-only diet. It takes her 15 minutes to get to the nearest halal restaurant or market selling halal meat in Gainesville.

Khuddus lives close to halal dining and markets in Gainesville and said she orders raw halal beef patties online for delivery.

She discovered through research and word-of-mouth that some meat processing companies sell halal meat but don’t indicate their halal status on the packaging. Khuddus said the lack of clarity from companies may contribute to the struggle to find halal food options.

“I think it just takes time for them to realize how important that is for people who eat … halal to have it there,” she said.

Saim Shaikh, a University of Florida student, along with six of his friends, approached UF dining representatives in January to ask for halal food on campus.

On Aug. 1, two halal restaurants opened in the Reitz Student Union food court.

“We have a lot of vegetarian, vegan options,” Shaikh said. “Halal was very missing.”

Amy Armstrong, the director of communications for UF Business Affairs, said in an email that The Halal Shack and Baba’s Pizza addresses students’ needs as described in focus groups — like the one Shaikh attended.

“We believe making halal options more available may spark positive conversations on food diversity and culture,” Armstrong said.

Baba’s Pizza manager Tarburi Majette said he didn’t see much difference between halal and non-halal restaurants other than that halal food kitchens pay more attention to food quality and cleanliness.

“Halal food is for everyone,” Majette said.

Multiple halal certification organizations exist, such as the American Halal Foundation and Halal Food Standards Alliance of America, all with common standards such as routine inspections and strict separation of ingredients and equipment.

Halal-certified restaurants are required to buy from approved halal sources, Majette said, and they must ensure their ingredients don’t cross-contaminate. He said Baba’s Pizza and The Halal Shack’s kitchens are sectioned off from other non-halal restaurants in the Reitz Union food court to prevent cross-contamination.

A mile away from the Reitz Union, at West University Avenue and Northwest 15th Street, Bite of Power is a halal restaurant close to the University of Florida’s campus. “We’ll be trying to market stronger and hoping to get more popular,” Bite of Power owner Ealyes Mohammed said. (Zarin Ismail/WUFT News)

Bite of Power is a halal restaurant a mile away from the Reitz Union.

Owner Ealyes Mohammed said the competition from the Reitz Union locations adds pressure, but it motivates him.

“The late hours advantage is kind of how we’re dealing with the competition here,” Mohammed said. With halal access improving, Mohammed sees a future where halal food quality also improves.

About Zarin Ismail

Zarin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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