Update: Listen to the WHYY News audio version of this story here:
It’s a crowded Monday evening at Manakeesh Cafe Bakery & Grill. The sun is just starting to set over West Philadelphia, and two dozen customers have funneled in, placing their orders at the counter for Lebanese specialties like baba ghanouj and falafel.
But they’re going to have to be patient.
At about 7:30 p.m., they’ve got almost an hour to wait until they can eat or drink anything, even water. That’s because it’s Ramadan, and per tradition, the owners of Manakeesh fast during daylight hours.
It’s a practice they keep alive inside their restaurant for the duration of the month-long holiday — no eating or drinking from dawn until dusk — and an opportunity to teach their University City neighborhood something about Islam.
The Chatilas aren’t the only proprietors in the city to keep up with the tradition — far from it. Roughly 10 to 15 percent of Philadelphians are Muslim, and in 2011 the city was listed as having the fourth-highest number of mosques in the country.
With their available hours cut drastically, how do Muslim restaurateurs and food vendors stay afloat? Some supplement their business with big catering orders, while others gladly accept the pay cut to focus on their faith.
“It’s bigger than the money,” said Siddiq Moore of Siddiq’s Water Ice in Cobbs Creek. He celebrates Ramadan by closing shop a few hours early each evening to attend Iftar. “You’re doing it because you get a bigger reward.”
At Manakeesh, normal hours are long: from 7:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night. But during Ramadan, it’s open just two hours in the evening.
Wissam Chatila, who owns the cafe at 45th and Walnut with his wife, Mona, says they still get pretty good business. Customers still reliably come in as soon as doors are unlocked — and they don’t seem to mind waiting.
“We try to stick with our tradition,” Chatila said. “Whether they’re Muslim or not Muslim, everyone will have the chance to experience how it is during Ramadan.”
Preparing feasts when you’re thirsty
About 15 blocks west, a Cobbs Creek cafeteria handles the holiday a little differently.
Hussein Thompson, owner of Southside Zabihah Halal Eatery, has mostly Muslim clientele. Still, he still keeps the shop open during the day to avoid excluding customers who aren’t fasting.
When the sun’s out, it’s pretty quiet at the eatery on 60th Street near Pine. Fewer customers are coming in — but Thompson doesn’t sweat it financially. During the month of Ramadan, he makes up his income with massive catering orders.
People often throw big parties to break their fast — a celebration known as Iftar — and that spells good money for Thompson’s halal outpost.
“We get contracted to do a lot of Iftars,” said Thompson, who just last week prepped a feast in two days for 450 people. “We’re doing a catering job just about every day for different groups of people.”
Breaking fast can be especially rewarding if you have to cook indulgent dinners all day long without eating so much as a snack. Thompson been fasting since age 7, so he said he’s pretty much used to the hunger. The harder part, by his estimation, is the thirst.
“Being around the stove and the oven…I might say, ‘Oh god, I’m thirsty,’” he said.
Sometimes, when he delivers and serves his Iftar catering orders, he’ll bring a bag of dates and a bottle of water to hold himself over. Other times, his customers welcome him to join in their feast.
“In some cases they’ll come and say, ‘Make sure you eat,’” Thompson said.
Relatively speaking, the monetary hardships don’t weigh heavily on many Muslim restauraunteurs.
“In any business, you have ups and downs,” said Wissam Chatila of Manakeesh. “The gains that we get from fasting and serving our community for Iftar are much greater than the actual financial gains.”