Ramadan, opportunities and challenges for foodservice

As Ramadan enters its final third, food entrepreneurs in Muslim areas will be preparing for 18th July when normal service resumes. The holy month poses unique challenges and opportunities to the foodservice industry. But but does the sector respond correctly?

Changing eating habits

Although rituals and practices differ from area to area, 60% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims fast during Ramadan. As Serdar Sağlamtunç FCSI notes, “daily life changes dramatically” for Muslims during the holy month. Nothing is allowed to pass the lips; in addition to food and drink, smoking cigarettes, brushing teeth and chewing gum are all forbidden.

Challenges

Drastic shifts in eating habits do have repercussions for the foodservice industry. These are particularly acute in orthodox areas with higher concentrations of Muslims. Amidhan Shaberah is head of the Indonesian Ulema Council in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. In June, just before fasting began, he said provinces could enforce compulsory closing of restaurants during Ramadan “based on their tradition”. Sağlamtunç notes the impact of policies like this in small cities where “pressure from people to close restaurants” emerges, while even in commercial centres, where restaurants remain open, “occupancy rates go down dramatically”.

Furthermore, Sağlamtunç identifies an increase in “nervous and impatient” behaviour thanks to the fast, which can increase risk in the kitchen. He says, “the accident rate goes up to 75%-85% due to loss of concentration.” Even when fasting isn’t publicly enforced, this suggests its impact on individuals can have knock-on consequences for foodservice across the Muslim world.

Opportunities

But it’s not all bad news for foodservice. Ramadan also offers opportunities to the food and beverage industry. Instead of eating out during iftar, the fast breaking period at sundown, fasters may splash out on lavish spreads in their own homes, enjoyed with friends and relatives. These can include olives, dates, hot and cold dishes with rice and vegetables, stuffed pastries, sorbet, coffee and tea and special Ramadan-only deserts like gullac (made with pastry, milk and pomegranate) to finish. In fact, says Sağlamtunç, “most of the time it is true that people gain weight during Ramadan”. If food and beverage entrepreneurs can exploit this booming demand, the industry needn’t lose out during the fasting period

Ramadan opens widespread profit opportunities to discerning business people. In 2012, Samer Sunnuqrot noted that Ramadan generates “higher demand for goods and services and higher consumption”, which firms operating during the iftar period stand to gain from. A quick Google search in Muslim majority countries for “where to break your fast during iftar” reveals the array of offers that businesses lay on to cater for iftar food demand, in areas ranging from Indonesia to the United Arab Emirates.

Where next for foodservice?

Sağlamtunç offers a number of suggestions to policymakers and entrepreneurs in Muslim majority areas for making the most of Ramadan. First, to minimise workplace hazards and aid regional economies, he recommends offering fasters “annual leave during Ramadan” which should also “boost local tourism”. Second, he argues the food industry “does not respond correctly to Ramadan” and advocates “more healthy food to support the body in a long day of fasting”. Finally, “large areas for gathering and meeting” should be set up where people could “dine together”. Such suggestions, which minimise the costs of Ramadan to entrepreneurs and bolster the benefits, prove that spiritual enrichment through fasting, and a thriving foodservice industry, needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Tom Lawrence

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