To step into Manitoba’s longest-running halal store is to feel all your senses go off at once.
Colourful spices lining the shelves, hookahs of every size and variety, signage above each aisle in English and Arabic, the smell of warm samosas. On a small television a video of Muslim worshippers in Mecca with prayers overlaid plays, above one of the store’s tightly-packed lanes.
At the heart of it all, 70-year-old owner Yusuf Abdulrehman is somehow the most vibrant aspect of the store.
Seemingly unable to stop moving, he paces through the aisles of the Halal Meat Centre, located at 206 Maryland St., fixing products just so, talking to suppliers on speaker phone, but always stopping to greet customers, many he knows by name. It’s no wonder that many in Winnipeg’s Muslim community fondly refer to the store as simply "Yusuf’s."
When Abdulrehman immigrated to Winnipeg from Tanzania 40 years ago, there was nowhere to buy halal food, much less specialized halal stores. Today, shops dot the city — but none as historic as the Halal Meat Centre, first opened by Abdulrehman and his wife Roshanara nearly 35 years ago.
It’s a point of pride.
"I’m the oldest store, and that’s what I am," Abdulrehman said. "And my way of doing business is different than what they’re doing."
Halal food simply means food that was prepared under the guidelines put forward in the Qur’an — the word means "permissible" in Arabic. Halal certification has many caveats, but some of the basics include that it can’t contain any pork (even in trace amounts, like gelatin) or alcohol, and animals must be slaughtered under specific guidelines often considered more humane than mass meat production.
This can put Muslims who observe these guidelines in a tough spot — even foods that may seem fine, like pie crust or candy, may not be halal, and pork products are a staple in many Canadian meals. At Halal Meat Centre, everything from the bacon (made from chicken) to the sweets (made from pork-free gelatin) is halal.
It’s a point of comfort for their Muslim clientele, Abdulrehman said, that they can come in and know their needs are being put first — but people coming in, and his suppliers, are from all walks of life, including meat from Hutterite colonies and local farmers.
"When I started this business, it was initially aiming for Muslim community. Now that’s not the case, I’ve got more other clientele than the Muslim community," he said.
That focus on the Muslim community had an impact on how the city’s Muslim community formed — Manitoba Islamic Association president and customer Idris Elbakri said he remembers the store as the only place to get halal food when he arrived in Winnipeg from Palestine 16 years ago.
Halal stores are often a hub for newcomers to the city — not just for familiar foods, but for the resources they provide outside of their products.
"It’s often a place where people go not just to buy products but to get information, to get help," he said.
"They become an informal information-sharing network, an informal assistance network, where through the owners or the employees of these stores, people learn things about the community, about the city, and get help from other members of the community.
"I think they play a very important role."
Today, there are multiple halal stores — a representation of just how much the local Muslim community has grown in a short time, Elbakri said — but the services they provide to newcomers remain the same. Often, he said, Muslim families who have lived in Winnipeg for a while will go to halal stores before newcomers arrive in the city and put together packages of food from their country of origin in hopes of reminding them that their culture has immigrated with them.
"I think it just kind of helps people feel less homesick, and maybe take a step forward into integrating in their new environment," he said.
Halal stores serving as a safe space for newcomers might seem like a heavy responsibility to some, but Abdulrehman waves it off. He’s a natural entrepreneur — before the shop, he worked in sales of everything from cars to stationary — and creating a safe space for everyone is just part of the job.
"To be very honest to me, it doesn’t matter," he said. "Whether you’re Muslim or if you’re not a Muslim, you are in my store, it is my responsibility to take care of you."
He credits both the store’s longevity and its diverse customer base to service — the double-edged sword of halal food reaching mainstream attention in Winnipeg means big-box stores will often have some halal products priced in a way that alienates mom-and-pop operations like Abdulrehman’s, but, as he puts it, they never have the care he puts into his work.
"It’s very important, how you run the business. You have got to take care of your customer. You got to protect your customer," he said. "That’s what they’re here for."
And it’s worked — the store has maintained a steady success over the past three decades, including clientele who drive in from Saskatchewan and North Dakota to browse his wares.
Abdulrehman is 70, and his three sons, who all work in the medical field, aren’t interested in picking up the family business. The future of Halal Meat Centre is uncertain, but he’s still spry — after speaking with the Free Press, he gets right back to work, pacing through the aisles again, fixing items just so, on the phone with suppliers.
"I will carry on as long as I can, unless somebody’s willing to wear my shoes. Then I’ll give him my shoes and let him carry on," he said.
"Other than that, I will continue myself as long as I can, because I enjoy doing what I’m doing."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.