NOVA SCOTIA: A Cape Breton couple originally from Pakistan hopes the unique fare of its soon-to-open Royal Halal restaurant will help locals gain a better understanding of Muslim people and the religion of Islam.
The new eatery is located in the Welton Street Plaza in Sydney in the former premises of a Subway restaurant. It’s the brainchild of Waqar Ahmed and his wife Fazeela Waqar. The pair of 34-year-olds hails from Lahore, the second-largest city in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which in turn has the second-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. More than 96 per cent of Pakistan’s population of 225-million people are Muslim.
“We will serve halal food, which is what all Muslims must eat, but it is good for everybody and we invite everyone to come and try it out,” said Ahmed. “Our aim is to make great-tasting and healthy food at a reasonable price that will appeal to everyone and is ready quickly.”
Added Fazeela: “I have made halal dishes for non-Muslim Indian and Pakistani friends and they loved it. They said it was very delicious. It is also very healthy.”
As its name suggests, Royal Halal’s menu is all about halal, an Arabic word meaning permissible, similar to kosher is to Jewish people. It is generally associated with food and specifically meat, and the way Islamic law dictates how food-source animals are raised and fed, how they are slaughtered and how the food is prepared for consumption.
Ahmed acknowledges that the recent influx of international students has led to some Cape Breton stores offering a limited selection of halal foods. But he said it was the lack of restaurants dedicated to halal that led to their belief that Royal Halal could fill that niche market while still appealing to non-Muslims who appreciate delicious and healthy food.
Growing up in Lahore, the young entrepreneurs are very familiar with halal. Fazeela, who is presently employed at a local bank, worked in her family’s restaurant where she learned the secrets of properly preparing halal food. And, after arriving in Canada in 2018, the couple purchased Broadway Convenience store in Whitney Pier. They have since made the Victoria Road shop a go-to place for Indian-style goods, foods and ingredients.
With plans for the new restaurant already well underway, the couple’s convenience store was robbed earlier this month. But what started as a troubling incident quickly led to a reinforcement of their belief that they made the right choice in relocating to Cape Breton.
“We were very upset, of course, but the reaction of our customers, our neighbours and other people was amazing,” said Fazeela.
“People came in or through the drive-thru and told us they were also upset about the robbery and that they would continue to support us. Many asked what they could do to help. It was incredible and it made us feel more a part of the community.”
Ahmed, who ran his own travel agency before moving to Canada, said he and his wife are concerned about how they are viewed by non-Muslims.
“Before we chose Cape Breton, we visited Quebec and Ontario where we found it was difficult to cross a street. It was also much busier there. Not like here where we don’t have to spend all day in traffic,” he said.
“Once we came here, we saw how kind most people are and that most people are very friendly. But we wonder what people think of Muslims here. We just want to say that most Muslims are peaceful and only want to be good and kind people and not to hurt anyone. Islam is a religion of peace.”
Prior to arriving in Cape Breton, Ahmed’s only link to the community was an uncle who at one time ran both Broadway Convenience and the Canadian Tire gas bar which is also located in Whitney Pier. But it was enough of a connection to make inroads in the community. They attend a mosque located in the former parish hall of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church and reside in Sydney’s upper Ashby neighbourhood.
With Royal Halal’s planned opening date fast approaching, the restaurant’s proprietors are waiting on a couple more pieces of kitchen equipment. The interior of the premises has been renovated and boasts a crisp red and black colour scheme.
Ahmed is particularly impressed with the strict building codes in effect in Nova Scotia.
“It was like each contractor was an expert on one thing and they couldn’t touch the other work. It meant things took longer but we know it is all done well. The building standards here are much higher than in Pakistan,” he said.
While the eatery’s menu is halal-based, there will be a selection of Canadian-style dishes that will also be prepared in the traditional halal method. The restaurant will be open seven days a week with the goal of being open for lunch, dinner and the time in between.
Royal Halal now joins a growing list of Cape Breton restaurants offering diverse ethnic fare, including several eateries featuring Indian dishes that are fast becoming popular with local diners. That list includes Swaagat – The Real Taste of India, with locations in Sydney and Glace Bay, Mian’s in downtown Sydney, Butterbeer in Whitney Pier and the Little Chef in Sydney River.
Other culturally diverse eateries include Chinese, Japanese, Thai and, of course, Lebanese/Syrian.