Finding a halal restaurant just became significantly easier for American Muslims, thanks to a new smart phone application launched this month that makes dietary religious observance a piece of cake.
Ask dietary-cautious Muslims in the west what their major challenge is when it comes to eating religiously-permitted foods and they'll say finding a halal place on-the-go. But with Halalpal, an iPhone application that locates halal restaurants and eateries throughout the United States, sticking to a halal diet has become much easier.
The search engine application designed for Apple’s iPhone gives users a list of nearby restaurants with maps, contact information, price categories and recommendations.
The application scans the internet -- mainly Google, Yahoo, Yelp and the online guide to halal restaurants and products known as Zabihah.com -- to produce a list of halal eateries sorted by distance.
Rami Dodin, Halalpal's 26-year-old founder, said his application fills the gap between technology and religion in daily life. After years of working in the IT business, Dodin realized there was a void between the services offered by the latest technologies and gadgets on the one hand and the everyday local needs of Muslim Americans on the other.
"There is an 'access gap' between local halal businesses and their goers that Halalpal fills," Dodin, who is based in San Francisco, told Al Arabiya. "Many Muslims have iPhones and blackberry interfaces that are useful on the whole but do not have services that cater specifically to their religious local needs."
"Halal eating is a very niche thing and it is hard to get specific search results off of Google and Yahoo because they do not target that specific customer group," he explained.
The first portable service of its kind, Halalpal came about after several years Dodin helped design and run NearBuy.it, a general purpose local search engine. An analysis of search results showed an increasing interest in halal eateries and products.
"We found people are reaching out for this service and this gave us the inspiration to create a special application for halal users," said Dodin, adding that the aim of any business is to tune in and respond to the needs of customers.
Dodin, who previously worked on Arabizing Google, the world’s top search engine, headed a team of four that included a designer, iPhone developer and web developer and himself.
The application description on iTunes says the mission of Halalpal is “to encourage and fortify American’s emerging halal ecosystem by connecting halal eaters with halal eateries.” It even allows users to rate and comments on the restaurants.
A growing market
Michael Alvarez, an iPhone developer and Vice President of Marketing based in Utah sees a big future for Halalpal and similar applications.
"Anytime you have a device or service that targets a specific niche and yields satisfactory results, you can expect to be extremely successful," Alvarez told Al Arabiya.
He said that while Google has done an excellent job reaching mobile devices via SMS or text messages, such services are extremely costly. The Halpal application, on the other hand, is free to download and is bound to be a success because it is the "first in the game."
In an age where the Yellow Pages and even computers are fast becoming bulky devices of an older era, people are turning to light portable devices for maximum service provision.
And with an estimated three million Muslims, and another five million Jews whose kosher restrictions are similar to Muslim halal practices, the potential customer base is significant, according to Alvarez.
Halalpal is a free download on iTunes but so far is only available on the iPhone and only in the United States.
Halalpal has already found several fans among Muslim Americans, who say the application is useful and easy to use.
For Kaysar Ridha, a 28-year-old graphic designer from Orange County, California who has observed Islam's dietary laws since childhood, Halalpal makes it easier to practice his beliefs.
"Through advancement of technology, it becomes easier to be a Muslim. Halalpal is a case in point: it makes it easier for Muslims to eat halal wherever they are," Ridha told Al Arabiya.
He also lauded Halalpal's ‘review’ option, which lets users read restaurant reviews and rate them afterwards. "From a practical point of view, I and many Muslims have been waiting for something like this," said Ridha.
Nineteen-year-old Heba from California, who has been an iPhone user for one year, said Halalpal helped her maintain Islamic dietary laws of eating at places where pork is not served.
"Keeping halal is hard because even if I go to places like McDonalds or Chilis to order non-pork meals, I am still not eating halal," Mathews told Al Arabiya, since there is always a risk that pork contamination from cooking oil or cooking utensils -- like knives or containers used to store pork and other meats -- is always a risk.
Another user, 22-year-old Haidar Shaikley from Berkley told Al Arabiya he discovered halal food places he never knew of before.
"I have been using Halalpal for two weeks and I have already found two halal places around the corner from where I live," Shaikley said.
Good for business
Emma Brown, owner of Top Deck Deli, a Santa Clara, California restaurant that began serving halal foods three years ago to cater to the area’s Muslim community, had not heard of Halalpal but said she liked the idea and thought it could be good for her business.
"A service like this would definitely increase business here," Brown, who is not Muslim, told Al Arabiya. "There is a mosque half a mile down the road and ever since we began serving halal foods our customers have increased. We get a lot of families."
Halalpal is just the latest application hoping to capture the Muslim demographic. Sun Dial, another mobile phone application being tested in Atlanta, tells users prayer times using Islamic friendly images of the sun and mosque to alert Muslims to prayer.