Story by Ana Facio-Krajcer
Photos by Aurelio Jose Barrera
It’s a Saturday morning at Al Salam Polleria on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles and Iman Elrabat-Gabr is busy tending to customers waiting patiently in line to buy freshly slaughtered chickens. “How much per pound for the feet?” asks a gray-haired, elderly woman in Spanish as she peers through a glass-encased refrigerator at the Muslim family-owned halal poultry shop, where food preparation is guided by religious law. “$2.50 per pound,” Elrabat-Gabr responds in Spanish. “Give me a pound,” the woman says as she pulls out three crumpled dollar bills from a worn-out black coin purse. “Gracias y adios” Elrabat-Gabr says after she hands the woman her change and a plastic bag of chicken feet.
Elrabat-Gabr, 37, recalls when the chicken feet would go in the trash instead of the refrigerator. When the family-owned poultry shop opened in 1984, the chicken feet weren’t sold because Muslims didn’t eat them. But her family soon learned that in Latino immigrant culture, chicken feet – some with the nails still protruding from the bird’s toes – are used for making chicken soup and are considered a treat for children. “We didn’t know that people ate them,” said Elrabat-Gabr who does not wear the hijab over her curly black hair tied in a pony tail. “We didn’t know that we could charge for them.”
Something else her Egyptian native family didn’t know was that the Latino immigrant clientele in East LA – who favors freshly slaughtered ranch-raised chicken – would keep them in business for nearly 28 years.
Except for a few Koran verses on a wall; a small porcelain figure of the Kaaba Shrine in Mecca atop a refrigerator; and two signs hung next to each other that read: “Mexican Parking Only,” and “Parking for Egyptians Only, all others will be towed,” Al Salam Polleria, topped by a rooftop rooster, resembles a business that caters to the Latino palate. The food products for sale include dry pepitas and chiles for mole Poblano, various herbs like epazote, essential to some Mexican dishes, and Mexican peanut candy like Mazapan. The store also carries Latino staples like beans and rice.
“We were the first Muslim owned halal store to advertise directly to Latino people,” said Elrabat-Gabr. “You have to adapt to the Latino community or you’re not going to survive (in business).”
Proof of that is on the shop’s business cards that advertise fresh chicken in Spanish. And the name of the store, Al Salam Polleria, a combination of Arabic and Spanish words, is a clear sign that the Muslim family caters to Latinos. The words “Al Salam” mean peace and “Polleria” is poultry shop in Spanish.
Elrabat-Gabr’s father, Safwat Elrabat, who died 12 years ago, opened the poultry shop with her uncle in East LA because the zoning then allowed the sale and the slaughtering of live poultry on the site according to their religion’s dietary requirements. Halal foods, especially halal meat, must come from animals that have been killed according to Islamic law. In Arabic, “halal” means lawful or permissible.
In the 1980s, there was a lack of halal butchers in Los Angeles. So when the family opened for business, they were expecting Muslims from other parts of the city to make the trek to East LA to buy halal poultry.
The large number of Muslim customers they were expecting never came. But Latino immigrant customers did, and through word of mouth they became the main consumers of fresh poultry. In fact, whole fresh chickens are the store’s top selling item.
“(Latino customers) really didn’t care about halal,” Elrabat-Gabr said. “They cared about fresh chickens …. “So, it’s just been pure luck that our cultures are interested in the same thing.”
Elrabat-Gabr and her brother Ahmed Elrabat, 35, are among several family members who run the store. Both siblings went off to college but returned to help run the family business. For Elrabat, the shop became a full time job after his father died.
Currently, various members of the family slaughter the chickens, and other animals following Muslim law. This is done when a Muslim customer requests halal meat.
“We kill it very humanely. Our religion strictly forbids the animal being tortured,” Elrabat-Gabr said. “It’s done very quickly. You slit the jugular vein as fast as possible and you try not to have the other chickens watch what you’re doing… And you have to say a prayer over the animal.”
The store has gone through few changes over the last decades. A giant white statue of a rooster atop the roof of the store has become iconic in the historically Mexican neighborhood. Something else that has remained constant is the barnyard odor of fowl inside the store. Live chickens, roosters, rabbits and other types of birds are kept in roomy cages in the back. Latino employees, like Josefina Martinez, 42, who has been working at the shop for 20 years as a butcher, makes sure the store is kept clean and orderly.
“I’ve stayed here because Ahmed (Elrabat) and the others treat me well,” Martinez said, a native of El Salvador. Martinez said she’s learned “a little Arabic” but mostly communicates with her employers in Spanish.
Adapting to Latino community and culture
Over the years, the family as well as their business has had to adapt to the Latino culture by learning Spanish and embracing Latino food. “My brother often cooks chicken soup Mexican style with cilantro and chayote,” Elrabat-Gabr said.
When both siblings emigrated to the U.S. from Egypt in 1980 with their parents, their father, a former vocational college professor in Egypt, spoke little English.“And when he opened (the shop), he had to learn Spanish. And then by the end his Spanish was way better than his English,” Elrabat-Gabr said.
Because of the large number of Spanish speaking patrons, both siblings say they go through entire business days speaking only Spanish.
“There’s many days where I go home and I forget, and I continue to answer the phone and I say ‘Bueno?’ ”she said. “So it’s interesting how you do have to adapt. That’s the only way to communicate with people and relate to them.”
The dependence on immigrant Latinos, however, has not fully insulated the shop from the tough economy. The store is surviving but sales are down after job losses have taken a toll on its clients.
The majority of our customers are first generation immigrants,” said Ahmed Elrabat. “Some of the immigrants that couldn’t find a job went back to their country. And they were clients.”
Still, Al Salam Polleria has counted on its remaining customers to keep it in business.
Reynaldo Castillo, an East LA resident said he’s been a client for 10 years. Castillo said he’ll remain a customer as long as they keep selling poultry at a reasonable price. On a recent Thursday, Castillo, who is in his thirties, arrived to buy a live red rooster. Usually, he stops to buy freshly slaughtered chicken for soup.
“At another place, they wanted $25 (for the rooster). Here I paid $12,” Castillo said placing the rooster in a box inside his car. “This one is not for soup. He’s for my chickens. He’s going to stay until he dies of old age.”[portfolio_slideshow id=35235 autoplay=false portfolio_slideshow carousel=false portfolio_slideshow carouselsize=7]
Photos by Aurelio Jose Barrera