Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Barkaat Foods: Bridgeport's New Slaughterhouse

Barkaat's Sidewalks - Sunday AM before Eid

Ideally, the new sidewalks in front of 3810 South Halsted would have been finished last week, because this week, throngs of faithful Muslims are celebrating the festival of Eid by making a trip to Barkaat Foods. Barkaat has replaced Chiapetti’s as the last slaughterhouse in Chicago. They specialize in halal meat, slaughtered in accordance with dietary laws of Islam.

Eid marks the occasion when God told Abraham to sacrifice a ram in Isaac’s stead, and Barkaat is expecting about 500 customers who will honor the event by slaughtering their own lamb for the holiday feast. Ahmed Khan, Barkaat’s President and CEO, says that most of them have scheduled their slot ahead of time, and a professional butcher is on hand to oversee each slaughter, but logistics still sound complex.

Barkaat opened for business in the last week of October last year -- just in time for the busiest week of a halal butcher’s year. “We learned a lot,” Khan smiles.

Khan and his business partner Salman Khan were IT consultants before they opened Barkaat Foods. They still operate their IT business, UIS Consulting, whose clients include the Chicago Public Schools and Harris Bank. The leap from cyberspace to slaughterhouse is unusual. But Khan, who got his MBA at Northwestern’s Kellogg School, says they were always being told to look for a “niche” in business school.

The US market in halal foods has 2 characteristics of a perfect niche – it’s both underserved and potentially huge. Demographically, Muslims are a youthful, growing population. A study by advertising agency JWT estimates the US halal market to be worth $170 billion; it’s worth $2 trillion worldwide. Internationally, big firms like Nestle and Carrefour have developed specialty product lines for Muslim consumers. By contrast, the US market is still relatively immature. There are fewer halal products, and in a meat industry dominated by beef and pork, Khan says only 4 of the big US slaughterhouses regularly slaughter lamb and goat at all. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity,” Khan says.

Khan first came across the Chiapetti’s facility 5 years ago. At the time, Chiapetti’s was the last of the old guard of Chicago slaughterhouses that once proliferated around the Union Stockyards. Originally, the stockyards grew around the rail hub that gave them ready access to every market in the United States. But a central city location made less sense as refrigerated trucks and the highway system replaced rail cars as the primary mode of meat transport, and the stockyards closed for good in 1971.

Chiappetti’s persisted by cultivating niche markets. They specialized in lamb and veal for restaurants and other food service businesses, and offered both kosher and halal slaughtered meat. Franco Chiappetti once joked with a reporter that his operation illustrated the potential for world peace, because Muslims, Christians and Jews worked side by side with knives, and no one was stabbing each other.

But Chiappetti’s was also concerned as $500,000 homes were being built closer to their plant. They had seen what happened at the meat market on Fulton Street as residential lofts moved in, and 5 years ago, they were already looking around for a more modern facility. By spring of 2009, when Khan visited Chiappetti’s again, they were still at the South Halsted plant, but they had outsourced slaughter operations and were processing meat shipped in from Iowa.

“The price was acceptable” for the former Chiappetti’s plant Khan says, and so was the location. In fact, the central city address that turned into an inconvenience for other slaughterhouses is an advantage to Barkaat’s business. “Authenticity is very important,” Khan says, and customers often want to visit the plant.

The facility itself is compact, the disassembly line is relatively simple, but the rules governing it are complex. USDA inspectors make sure it is clean; the rules of dhabiya, or halal slaughter, are humane.

Barkaat Foods_ In the Cooler

USDA inspectors make the rounds of 4 or 5 meat facilities in the area every day. They inspect each live animal for disease so they can track problems back to the farm they came from, and they inspect each carcass after the kill, removing parts that aren’t up to snuff. Innards are disposed by a specialty waste handler; fleeces make their way to a tanner just south of the railroad tracks.

The walls and floor are washed down with hoses – the process takes 4 hours after each kill. The blood and water are flushed through drains in the floor and pumped to a rooftop treatment system. The water department measures the waste content of water entering the sewers and charges Barkaat for whatever hasn’t been removed.

Barkaat’s biggest single customer is Strauss Brands, a Franklin, Wisconsin based purveyor of lamb and veal which has made a name of itself producing free raised animals, which graze in pastures with their mothers, rather than being confined to crates, or held on tethers. “Our secret is authenticity,” Strauss advertises.

After each slaughter, most of the meat is shipped to Strauss’ Wisconsin facility for further processing, and sold under the Strauss label. In Chicago, you can buy Strauss brands, which may have been slaughtered at Barkaat, through Whole Foods, and through Caputo’s Fresh Markets. It’s also available through Costco online.

Khan says Barkaat slaughters about 2,500 animals a week -- roughly 2,000 of them lambs and another 500 goats – and the company is growing. He expects to slaughter 1,500 lambs this week for Eid in addition to their regular volume. They also slaughter kosher meat on Mondays, and they are developing prepared products – meat patties and the like. Most of the testing is done at another facility at 92nd and Baltimore, but Barkaat’s 2nd floor offices on Halsted are aromatic with spices from test product.

Barkaat employs 25 workers outside of management – some of them worked for Chiappetti’s for decades before Barkaat arrived. They lend Barkaat a connection to Chicago’s old tradition of meat packing, as Barkaat gives Bridgeport’s meat district a foothold in a new niche with phenomenal potential.

Sheepmen Build the Land

Monday, November 1, 2010

What Alderman Balcer Sees on Halsted Street

If you ask Alderman Balcer to describe what he’d like to see happen on Halsted Street, he starts, probably naturally enough for an alderman, with what’s already been accomplished.

The ground’s been laid with major streetscape improvements – all new curbs and stamped pedestrian treads at the intersections. The sidewalk is lined with decorative lamps and bracketed with big redevelopment projects: a stately police station at one end, a handsome condominium block at the other.

In between, the Alderman rattles off a list of shops that have all come on line in the last few years. Named in sequence, there are a lot of them.

Cermak Produce will join Blue City Cycles, 123 Express Chinese Restaurant, Tacos Erendira, Ace Bakery and Nana Restaurant, Emergency Shoe Repair and Alternations, the revamped Halsted Foods, Noodles Pho You and Evolution Fitness, Rings and Wings in the condominium building, Oscar’s Jewelry in its new Halsted location, and Bridgeport Tattoo.

In fact, he missed a couple, and his list, laced with enthusiastic superlatives, actually extends from the park in the old Stearns Quarry (with “400 million year old fossils” at the bottom of it and “views of the whole city” at the top), to the quaint and very tasty Bake for Me CafĂ© across from the stockyards.

For 10 years developers lined up in his office; now that they’re scarce, people sometimes complain about what actually got done. Several of those businesses he names were already here, they just moved to new quarters or redid their facades.

In response to which, Alderman Balcer observes “People see what they want to see.” And after all, if Bridgeport’s longtime business owners see opportunity to reinvest and grow, and if the city sometimes helps them, that can’t look all bad.

I’ve heard one or two new entrepreneurs say they want to coordinate to support other small business, so their investment doesn’t just lay the ground for the big chains to come in.

I’ve heard another acquaintance speculate that if there is a master plan for what happens in Bridgeport, it’s that it not turn out like Wrigleyville – a frat house row of bars around the stadium and the speculators driving elderly voters out of the houses they’ve lived in all their lives.

When I ask Alderman Balcer if there is development he thinks would be bad for Halsted Street, he sounds more concerned about junk shops than sports bars; when I ask if there is a written planning document he’s using as a guide for what ought to come, he says “There was one, but now I play it by ear.”

The Alderman acknowledges there is one more big redevelopment project in the works for central Halsted Street -- the vacant Wendt Furniture, most recently occupied by a dollar store that sold plastic goods out of cardboard bins, will go down, and the public library will expand into its space. But other than that, he says there are no more plans to demolish swaths of old storefronts for big civic projects.

He says the future of Halsted is in lots of small shops. “It can’t all be Target and Walmart.” An avid pedestrian who pops up everywhere on his neighborhood strolls, he says “You need foot traffic, or nobody’s going to come.” And when I squeezed in one last question about Barkaat Foods, which moved into the old Chiapetti’s plant down Halsted’s wholesale food district, he affirms they are an asset, compatible with the breadth of uses on Halsted Street.

All of which is pretty much what I’d hoped to hear him say. Though I am sure I hear what I want to hear as much as anybody else.